Most of us find it easy to make greener choices when it comes to recycling, reusing or simply cycling to reduce our carbon footprint.
But when it comes to food, something we literally cannot live without, the decision becomes much harder.
With the fires, flooding and other extreme weather we have seen recently, there is a revived emphasis to meet Boris Johnson’s “ambitious” target of cutting the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than two-thirds by 2030, especially as the COP26 climate summit draws closer.
“It’s important to look at what we’re eating with regards to climate change because we make decisions on it at least three times a day,” says food and climate journalist Thin Lei Win.
Whatever we eat contains hidden carbon calories, but some food items are guilty of a much larger carbon footprint than others.
Here’s what your breakfast, lunch and dinner items would emit in GHG every year if you ate them a couple of times a week, according to this climate change food calculator.
How do you like your eggs in the morning? A lot more if they didn’t produce 43 kg of GHG emissions. But as a source of protein, they’re much more eco-friendly than sausages and rashers.
A toast has to be made to bread. In comparison to other carbohydrates, it’s quite low in GHG emissions produced per year, producing about 4kg.
There is nothing quite like a hearty bowl of porridge to start your day, but its constituent ingredients rack up their own carbon costs. Oats release 8kg in GHG, yet the big emission potential comes from whichever milk you decide to add. Dairy milk weighs in at a whopping 49kg of GHG emissions, whereas its non-dairy counterpart, almond milk, results in only 10kg.
Why did the chicken cross the road? To tell you that it adds 106kg in GHG to the atmosphere. But it fares better than beef (604kg), prawns (269kg) or pork (140kg).
Penne? Tagliatelle? Fusilli? These carbohydrates contribute 9kg, which is far less than rice (26kg) – rice paddies emit a lot of methane – one of the biggest contributors to global warming.
Boil them, mash them, stick them in a stew, or eat them in their jackets – potatoes release 3kg of emissions, which make them one of the lowest emitting carbohydrates.
Get yourself some fatty acids. Fish gives out 146kg of GHG. Of course, some fish, like salmon, contain vital Omega-3 fatty acids which are important for brain health.
Lamb is almost as bad as beef with an emission of 339kg. If you have a hankering for some red meat, reduce your intake to maybe once a week – this goes for beef as well.
Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you fart. Beans are a low-emitting source of protein with 7kg – a vegetarian’s best friend.
But these are just what foods would emit as singular items – bread would never be eaten without accompaniments. So how do we find out how much a meal would emit?
Launched in 2019, Foodsteps is a company creating carbon labelling on food items.
Founder and CEO Anya Doherty says: “I was in my second year of studying Environmental Sciences when I came across the food system and how impactful it is on the environment – it sits at the centre of so many environmental issues.
While a postgraduate researcher at the University of Cambridge, Doherty worked with the university to measure the impact of their food and co-led the largest experimental trial in carbon-labelling of food. The findings are due for publication next month.
“We wanted to measure the impact food had on the environment but also if presenting that information to consumers actually made a difference. We found that it does,” she says.
One of Foodsteps first projects was with CH&Co, one of the country’s largest contract caterers.
The pilot scheme at University College London (UCL) allowed Foodsteps to trial the carbon labelling system in a commercial environment.
“The pilot scheme was successful and now they pay us a monthly subscription,” Doherty says.
“We’re just launching with Kew Gardens and have already launched in some of Bupa’s London sites. We’re also in early-stage discussions with retailers and it [labelling] is a direction that the industry is definitely heading in.”
Lei Win says that most conversations about emissions “revolve around consumers, but food and beverage companies that make billions have a lot of power in deciding how they want to change the way they produce food and how much they want to reduce emissions.”
According to research, more than a third of global GHG emissions come from food systems, with animal-based foods releasing twice as many as plant-based foods.
In her weekly newsletter, Thin Ink which covers “food, climate and where they meet”, Lei Win explained how studies like these inform global discussions – like last month’s Food Systems Summit in New York.
While the GHG emissions from farm to fork – the sourcing, packaging and delivery – may influence our decisions, Lei Win says: “When we talk about food, it shouldn’t just be about carbon, but nutrition as well. Nothing is black and white. There’s a lot more nuance to the situation than just saying ‘eat less meat’.
“In many parts of the world, where you don’t get the variety of fruits, vegetables or nuts as you would elsewhere, beef might be the only source of protein, and they probably aren’t getting enough of it.”
In our neck of the woods, however, nutritional substitutes are readily available.
Sarka Seborova, 28, who has been a vegetarian since she was a university student says that “by becoming a vegetarian, you are sending a clear message [about climate change] and are making an impact.”
Nutrients were “definitely a concern” for her when she first replaced the meat in her diet.
“But after a while, you just add them [iron and protein] naturally to your day-to-day and don’t think about it too much,” she says.
The World Resources Institute shared data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey showing that there has been a shift in the US and UK towards more white meat, yet the amount of red meat consumed has remained the same.
“It’s great that people are eating more white meat and plant-based foods, but if people have not reduced the consumption of meat altogether, it doesn’t make much of a difference,” said Lei Win.
For people who don’t want to give up meat, Lei Win advises that they just reduce the amount they eat and to “start small – one of the easiest ways to reduce your footprint is to not waste food.
“It’s important to make sure that people don’t turn off because it’s too difficult. For example, I love bacon but I’ll stretch what could be used for two breakfasts, into three meals for two – so six meals.”
Vicky Jessop, 25, was a vegetarian before becoming ‘flexitarian’ during lockdown.
“If my willpower were stronger, I’d still be a vegetarian… [but] a lot of veggie options at restaurants are still very limited and the idea of eating pasta for the umpteenth time while your friends feast on slow-cooked pork dumplings or something similar is pretty galling,” she said.
“I still try and buy ethically – when I do buy it – and make sure that it’s from local farms.”