Basket filled with grocery ingredients like vegetables and meat

What is a food carbon footprint?

We've all heard of a carbon footprint – but it’s not just about flying. Did you know your food could actually be the biggest source of carbon in your daily life?

The phrase ‘carbon footprint’ is something we’ve all heard of, but few people know exactly what it means. So, let’s be clear from the start – a carbon footprint is the total climate impact of an activity or item: from its creation, transportation and use to its destruction or wastage. 

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Most of the time, a carbon footprint refers to the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) that something creates, mainly carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. These gases can trap heat in our atmosphere, which causes global warming.

Everything has a carbon footprint; the food you eat, the gadgets you use, the clothes you wear, and you yourself. Companies, cities and countries also have a carbon footprint, as do specific activities such as flying and driving. 

What creates a food’s carbon footprint?

In the EU, food is the second largest contributor to our individual carbon footprints. This is caused by various stages in the life cycle of foodstuffs:

•    Production – the fertilisers, pesticides, animal feed, water and other materials (like electricity) used to grow or raise food

•    Processing – harvesting crops and dispatching animals, or the energy used in creating secondary foods such as dairy products 

•    Transportation – this includes from farms to processing plants, then on to retail units and finally from the shops to your home

•    Storage and cooking – the electricity involved in refrigerating and then cooking the food you’ve bought

•    Waste – this is both the food you throw away and unsold food disposed of by retailers

Each stage will have a different impact on a food’s carbon footprint. For example, buying beef produced in the UK rather than Argentina will reduce transport emissions, but red meat is still a major contributor to climate change. If you end up throwing that beef away, either as leftovers or because it was out of date, it will generate even more GHG as it breaks down.

By learning which foods have the largest and smallest carbon footprints, you can help reduce your individual carbon footprint overall.

Which foods have the greatest carbon footprint?

An overwhelming amount of evidence now shows that beef and animal products like dairy generate the largest amount of food-related GHG. Lamb is another culprit. This is because both cows and sheep need a lot of animal feed, plus they experience ‘enteric fermentation’– their stomachs break down food to produce methane. 

Foods with the lowest GHG emissions are plants and vegetables but how these crops are produced can create a huge variation in their carbon footprint. Buying strawberries from a local pick-your-own farm shop in summer will have very low emissions – and so a smaller carbon footprint – but buying out-of-season strawberries grown in UK hothouses will have a larger carbon footprint due to the energy and fertilisers needed to produce them.

Reduce your food carbon footprint

There are plenty of ways to reduce your food carbon footprint, from switching to a plant-based diet (but looking at how and where those plants are grown) to eating your leftovers or prioritising seasonally grown produce. 

You can also make more environmentally friendly food choices, thanks to a growing number of carbon labels on the front of packaging; research now shows that these labels help shoppers make better, low-carbon decisions. In 2020, Quorn became the first major brand to introduce carbon labelling in the UK, while the manufacturers behind brands including Bisto and KitKat are currently considering how to add carbon footprints to their packaging. 

Until then, ask yourself where your food comes from and what processes were involved in producing it. The answer could cut your carbon footprint and help protect our planet. 

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