Recent figures show the UK’s carbon footprint is falling, down 39% since 1990. This is largely thanks to a shift towards using clean energy sources such as wind farms, but every one of us still has an annual carbon footprint of 5.4 tonnes of CO2.
Luckily, saving the world isn’t just a job for superheroes or Swedish schoolgirls. By making several small changes to what and how you eat – from farming to food waste – you can cut your food carbon footprint and help reduce the total impact of CO2 on our planet.
1. Don’t overfill your kettle
Fancy a cuppa? Only put as much water in your kettle as you need. The Energy Saving Trust says overfilling our kettles costs UK households £68 million a year in energy bills. Switch to an eco kettle too, as these use 20% less energy than a conventional electric kettle.
2. Avoid plastic packaging
We know that single-use plastics are harmful for the environment, not just the pollution they create but the energy and fossil fuels involved in producing them. Tips such as taking your own container to buy dry goods like pasta or lentils, and using a sandwich tin rather than clingfilm, can help cut food packaging use, but it’s also important to know which types of plastic to avoid.
3. Stop eating meat…
Switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet is one of the most effective ways to shrink your food carbon footprint. A 2018 report concluded that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. In fact, we could reduce the total amount of land used for farming by 75% and still feed everyone on Earth.
4. … or at least cut down on meat
If giving up meat completely feels too much, reducing the amount of meat you eat is still a good move. Researchers from Oxford University found swapping just one red meat meal for a plant-based dinner every week could cut the UK’s carbon footprint by 50 million tonnes.
5. Love your lumpy fruit and veg
Eating ‘wonky’ produce can also cut your food carbon footprint. A 2018 study by the University of Edinburgh found over 50 million tonnes of misshapen fruit and vegetables are thrown away in the UK and Europe every year – the climate change impact is equivalent to the emissions of almost 400,000 cars. Most major supermarkets, such as Asda, Morrisons and Lidl, now sell wonky veg, so eat ugly to help create a more beautiful planet.
6. Consider your cooking methods
Figures show that cooking is responsible for 13.8% of the electricity we use in our homes, so finding more efficient ways to cook means less electricity and, in turn, less CO2 produced. There are pros and cons of gas and electric ovens – either way, choose one with an energy rating of at least A+. A microwave may be your best bet; it only heats up your food and not the air space around it in the oven.
7. Shop local – when in season
To further cut your food carbon footprint, it would make sense to buy locally grown produce but (again) it’s not that simple. Mike Berners-Lee, author of How Bad Are Bananas? The carbon footprint of everything says tomatoes are fine when they’re in season in the UK, but during the winter it’s better to buy them from warmer countries rather than local varieties grown in heated greenhouses – this uses more CO2 despite the lower food miles.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but we throw away 7.1 million tonnes of food every year, and almost 70% of that waste (5 million tonnes) is perfectly good food that could’ve been eaten. This food waste is associated with 19 million tonnes of CO2, so eating your leftovers can cut carbon and your food costs.
9. Eat organic
Organic produce contains more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – which are linked to various health benefits – than non-organic fruit and veg, but their carbon footprint is also much smaller. The Soil Association says healthy soils are able to store carbon, so if all UK farming became organic, at least 1.3 million tonnes of carbon would be taken up by the soil every year.
10. Rethink food miles
We’re told not to buy fruit and vegetables with too many food miles, but the issue isn’t that clear-cut. Berners-Lee says bananas are actually OK because they’re imported by boat – their carbon footprint is just 480g of CO2 per kilo despite the distance they travel. However, air-freighted produce, notably Peruvian asparagus, has a much greater carbon footprint.
More on sustainability
What is a food carbon footprint?
The facts about food miles
6 pieces of packaging to avoid
10 ways to eat out sustainably
How to reduce food waste
Is a vegan diet better for the environment?
How to compost food at home
Sustainability hub page
Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on Twitter @larkingly.