In today's post, we will be giving a better understanding of the climate impact of food and guide you towards options with a lower carbon footprint.
Food impact on the climate
“When most wealthy people think about their carbon footprint they’ll think about where their electricity and heat come from or what they drive… not so much about combine harvesters or processed meals or food waste,” writes academic Ruth Khasaya Oniang’o in The Guardian.
Food is increasingly high on the menu when it comes to climate concerns. Its consequences will affect our entire planet and everyone living on it – making it a key challenge to all industries. At The Lab, we believe this also means new possibilities and raising sustainability awareness even more.
In short, climate-positive relates to an activity that goes beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit. As climate change continues, the amount of food we can produce from each patch of land is predicted to change – in some cooler areas it will go up – but on average, globally, food production is expected to decrease. That means less food for a rising population. At the same time, we expect an increasing number of extreme weather events due to climate change, from droughts to flooding and storms, which can devastate or reduce the size of a crop. Most worrying is that these extreme weather events are becoming increasingly connected across large areas.
But, the good news is, it is possible to slow down these changes through the food we choose to eat. Not all foods are equal when it comes to causing climate change.
How do food choices make positive climate impacts?
Fact: 90% of the climate impact of a spaghetti bolognese comes from the beef.
Have you ever concerned about the contents of your next meal really make a difference to climate change? If you have and are curious about how your choices can make positive impacts, here goes.
Balanced diets featuring plant-based and sustainably produced animal-sourced food. This is believed to bring major opportunities for adaptation and generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health. And with plant-based meat alternatives now sold in supermarkets, the accessibility of more sustainable foods has never been better.
There's currently a lot of concern about packaging, especially plastic packaging. But, again, the impact on climate change is often assumed to be much bigger than it is. For example, the climate impact of producing a pint of milk is over 20 times that of the plastic milk carton itself. So, switching to buying milk sold in glass bottles isn't going to make a big difference to climate change compared, for example, to halving your milk consumption.
Finally, we can all agree that food waste is bad. By reducing food waste we avoid causing the climate impacts of the wasted food in the first place, as well as sending less food to rot and release methane at landfill sites. Tried and tested methods of reducing food waste include meal planning, refrigerating or freezing and eating leftovers, and measuring out quantities carefully.
How can you become climate-positive consumers? Cut your food’s climate emissions.
So, all in all, what exactly do we need to do?
Well, we can start by focusing on the foods you regularly eat, that cause the most climate impact – if you can change these regular things first then it is more manageable and the climate benefits will add up through the year.
Then, start by looking at quantities – if you could halve the amount per serving, then this would already make a big difference. So focus on adding a lot of climate-friendly foods into your diet, such as vegetables and beans or lentils, which come with a load of health benefits too.
As earlier mentioned, about 90% of the climate impact of a spaghetti bolognese comes from beef, with one portion causing about 6kg CO2e. Bulking out the recipe with a couple of tins of lentils will automatically reduce the amount of beef you're eating per portion. If you want to go the whole way, replacing the beef with tinned lentils completely would bring the total climate impact down below 1kg CO2e – one-sixth of the average daily output.
Has that given you food for thought over your next meal?
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Quirin Schiermeier, Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02409-7 ,2019
Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser, Environmental impacts of food production, https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food ,2020