In these days of carbon counting, our focus is often guided toward what we believe to be the higher impact aspects of life – heating the house, flights and car journeys mostly. But what about the food we eat? The term ‘food miles’ is often banded around, but do we really know the entire story?
The truth is our shopping baskets are spewing out more greenhouse gases than we first thought. In fact, scientists now know that our love for food accounts for up to twice as many emissions as our love for driving. So, is the simple answer to shop local? When you look at the supermarket shelves and see grapes from New Zealand, tomatoes from Spain and apples from Africa, locally-grown produce sounds like a logical answer, doesn’t it?
Well, it does until you learn that the term ‘food miles’ is solely focused on the products’ CO2 emissions. But, when you throw other harmful gases like methane and nitrous oxide into the equation, then the food production process becomes a whole lot dirtier. Those two gases alone are known to be way more harmful to our atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Research shows that farm to fork transportation accounts for only 11% of food’s total carbon footprint, with up to 83% of the emissions coming from the food production process itself. The remaining 6% going into wholesale and retail, refrigeration and lighting.
The most emission-intensive foods are red meat and dairy. That’s down to the amount of fertiliser and food that farmers use to rear cows and the amount of CO2 and methane they expel (the cows, not the farmers). You might be surprised to know that the carbon footprint of a tasty steak is the equivalent to that of a 19-mile journey in a 4x4 and that a simple bowl of cereal creates the equivalent stink of driving 4.5 miles (the main culprit in your bowl being the milk rather than the cereal itself).
So, one way of reducing your carbon food-print could be to give meat the chop entirely. Switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet could cut your annual carbon footprint by the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per person. That might be a bit too much of a leap for some meatlovers, so perhaps another way could be to simply reduce the amount of red meat we eat. Maybe replacing it with a nice free-range chicken. Chickens eat less grain and fart out less methane, so, in turn, cause a lot less damage to our atmosphere.
I guess there’s no simple answer and we all have to make our own choices in the end. Just some food for thought.
Facts: Fertilisers and manure release nitrous oxide, which is 296 times as good as CO2 at trapping heat and remains in the atmosphere for 114 years on average.
By 2050 meat consumption is expected to reach 465 million tonnes per annum.