"Whether you buy it from the farmer next door or from far away, it is not the location that makes the carbon footprint of your dinner large, but the fact that it is beef."
A person's carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is produced from a person's actions, this includes everything from catching a bus to the shops, charging your phone to eating a packet of crisps while you watch the television. Carbon footprints also apply to buildings, companies, items like cars and countries. It is calculated by adding up emissions that come from activities, such as emissions from burning from fossil-fuel, carbon dioxide produced during manufacturing, heating, cooling, and transportation. It also includes the emissions produced by the production of electricity used to produce goods and services. A person's carbon footprint can also include other greenhouse gases that are released such as methane, nitrous oxide, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Food accounts for between 10%-30% of a person's carbon dioxide productions and we've all been told that we have to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint, to cut down on emissions to reverse or at least slow down climate change. We recycle paper, use cotton bags instead of plastic, have staycations instead of flying to other countries and try to buy local foods as much as possible. It's pretty obvious that travelling by boat, plane and road cause carbon emissions and this is true for us as well as our food. To counter this we shop at farmers markets, local farmers travelling a small distance to sell their produce to their neighbours, that's great for everyone, but does it actually make a difference to the carbon footprint of your diet?
Emissions From Farming
With a few exceptions, farming food produces carbon dioxide and that both from animal farming and growing plants. The exception are nuts; this is because nuts grow on trees and trees remove more carbon dioxide from the air then they produce, also a tree takes up very little land for the amount of food it produces. Most of the emissions that come from food are created during farming, nearly 70% of the total. When growing plants, vegetables, grains, fruit etc. the carbon dioxide comes from the use of fertilisers, pest killers, the machines used to plant and harvest the foods, water and land use. With animal agriculture the emissions come from all of the same sources as plants, as animals eat plants, but also there is more land used, more machinery and a lot more water. As well as all of these animals produce waste, manure and gases. These gases escape into the atmosphere, the manure will be collected and left to rot, releasing even more gases it often ends up in waterways.
Emissions From Processing
Carbon emissions from processing foods comes from many different part of the process and they include the preparation of vegetables and fruit, the slaughter of animals, packing the foods and then the waste that is left behind. Processing can also involve cooking foods that are used in ready meals or instant foods. Crisps, noodles, chips, pizzas, all of these things need to be prepared in a factory before being packaged and transported to supermarkets. The actions of these factories produce carbon dioxide and this adds to the carbon footprint of the food.
Emissions From Transportation
Eat local, reduce food miles, cut down pollution, buy produce that's in season, we've all heard it. The problem is that this message assumes that most imported food is flown around the world and this isn't the case. Out of all of the miles that food does around the world only 0.16% of those are air miles, nearly 31% are road miles and almost 60% are sea miles with the rest being rail transport. Shipping food does not produce anywhere near as much carbon dioxide, especially when divided up between each piece of food on the ship. Transportation of food only amounts to around 5% of the total greenhouse gases emitted from food production. This means that eating locally may not be the answer to significantly reducing your carbon footprint.
70% of freshwater use is for farming and 78% of water pollution is caused by agriculture. Water pollution is not directly related to the carbon footprint of foods, however, the impact that this has on the environment is huge with dead zones, where nothing can survive, being an increasing problem. There is also the issue of the energy needed to make this water safe to be used again. If polluted water is taken in by a water plant they will need to do a lot of work to make the water usable, producing more carbon dioxide.
Emissions From Retail, Cooking and Food Waste
The greenhouses gases that result from selling and cooking food aren't huge, not when compared to the amounts produced from farming, but they are still important. Shops need electricity and many other resources to function, this all contributes to the carbon footprint of the food. Cooking food at home is another thing to think about. Do you bake a lot of foods slowly in the oven or do you use a pressure cooker or microwave to cook the food more quickly. Faster cooking methods not only retain more of the nutrition of the food, but they also use less resources and contribute much less to the carbon footprint of a food and therefore a person.
The Biggest and Smallest Footprints
Governments are actively working to reduce the emissions from food agriculture, meat, by far, has the biggest carbon footprint of all foods. Producing beef, lamb and pork results in a lot of greenhouse gases from production of animal feed, transportation of the feed, manure, processing and more, but most of the emissions come from methane, animal burps and farts.
Measuring the amount of nitrogen in soil is good indicator of the levels of emissions, in the UK the government use this to track improvements in pollution levels. In 2020 a government report showed that, in 20 years, nitrogen levels had fallen by 30%, this was achieved, in part, by planting crops where nitrogen levels were highest and letting the plants use it up. There has also been a decrease in the amount of fertiliser used for growing crops, including wheat and winter barley. Excess fertiliser in the soil is toxic and contributes to the carbon footprint of a food due to the release of nitrous oxide. As more people reduce the amount of meat that they eat the amount of greenhouse gases poisoning the earth will also be reduced as a huge part of each person's carbon footprint comes from the choices that they make about the food that they eat.