Food: How does it relate to the climate crisis & why do we care?
When you’re selecting groceries, ordering at a restaurant, or grabbing a coffee, do you think about your contribution to climate change? You will now! What we eat is inextricably linked to climate change by emissions from production, depletion of soil nutrients due to agriculture, transportation in modern food systems, packaging, waste, etc. Further complexity around food involves the feedback loop whereby food systems are both contributing to climate change and threatened by climate change. As climate change causes severe drought, flooding, fires, pest proliferation, and disease spread, food systems as we know them, become increasingly delicate. As such, we should be further compelled to make climate friendly choices when it comes to diet.
Food, and it’s associated impact on the planet, is such a critical component of everyday life. Furthermore, as populations increase, the footprint of food systems will simultaneously increase as well. Obviously we cannot phase out food as we will with fossil fuels or combustion engines. The improvement of our food systems is much more nuanced. In this article, I will provide an introductory exploration of the questions “how does food contribute to climate change and why must we look at the status quo with a critical eye?” This article is not prescriptive and exhaustive in its discussion of the contribution of food to climate change.. Instead of attempting the monumental task of fully describing the vast relationship between food and the climate crisis, my goal is to briefly introduce you to some of the contributing factors that are especially relevant to everyday life with the hope that you may explore these topics and your role in climate action in a new light.
The most obvious start to the exploration of this topic is a discussion of emissions from food production, transportation, and waste. Overall, food production and packaging is responsible for over one third of global GHG emissions caused by human activity. Furthermore, food accounts for 10-30% of a household’s carbon footprint. This is a sizable impact that will only increase as population increases.
(Download report to view Figure 1.)
By examining Fig.1, you can understand the variation in carbon impact of foods.
While Fig.1 is in no way exhaustive, it gives you an idea of the potential carbon savings of choosing some foods over others. This graph also does a great job showing the complex makeup of food emissions by breaking it down from production to packaging.
Our diet and the production of food is not the only variable when it comes to the environmental impact of what we eat. The next topic we will cover is food waste, which unlike production emissions, are completely avoidable and/or can be converted to energy.
While it's obvious that food waste is problematic simply in the fact that it is a resource wasted, it has a massive impact on climate change due to the chemical processes that occur when food breaks down and the emissions are not captured. In plain terms, when food breaks down, it emits methane which has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. At least 25% of today's warming is driven by methane from human actions. The statistics surrounding food waste are absolutely staggering. 13% of edible food and drink purchased by households are wasted and globally, one third of all food produced goes to waste. The value of this waste amounts to £1 trillion. Food wastage is responsible for around 8-10% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, not including food losses while farming. To give you some context, this is approximately three times the carbon footprint of the aviation industry!
WRAP figures suggest that, across the UK, an estimated 10million tonnes of post-farm gate food is wasted every year, yet only 1.8 million tonnes is currently recycled. This is due to a lack of separate waste collection services. It is only with the implementation of this infrastructure that the nearly 8.5 million tonnes of unavoidable and inedible food waste makes it to an anaerobic digestion plant and, therefore, converted to energy
Packaging & Plastic Pollution
It’s no secret that we have a major problem with plastic and, most relevant to this article, food packaging waste. Our culture which prioritises convenience has led to a pervasive plastic problem as single-use packaging continues to be the norm. This may conjure up images of the plastic gyre or Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While this is horrific and problematic, the issue of plastic pollution is less obvious to the naked eye. Most plastic items never fully disappear; they simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics. These microplastic particles are then swallowed by farm animals or fish who mistake them for food, and subsequently make their way onto our plates (another feedback loop and another reason to eat less meat/fish). Microplastics come from many sources including laundry, fishing gear, cigarette butts, garbage, etc. but plastic food packaging is something that we can address, as individuals.
What can you do today?
What good is a discussion of a problem without a subsequent discussion of potential solutions? While you alone will not be able to single handedly disrupt the global food system, you do have the capacity to make better decisions regarding your food. A principle that can be applied to all aspects of our individual sustainability journey is purchasing power. Money talks! We must not undermine our purchasing power and our ability to speak with our wallets. When selecting food, I ask you to consider a few questions: First, if not already vegetarian, consider making your meal meat-free. Meat products have a significantly larger carbon footprint per calorie than grain or vegetable products. To start, try focusing your efforts less on a perfectly vegetarian or vegan diet and instead on a “climate friendly” diet. Try to cut down your meat intake, do your research on carbon intensive foods, etc.
Second, do I need to buy all of this food or are there ingredients I already have that may go off soon? This often initially means meals that include some relatively random bits but hey, here is your chance to flex your culinary creativity! Furthermore, once you transcend into a sustainable living pro, you will strategically stock your cupboards with the right essentials (ideally from a package free store!) Another important change you can make to combat food waste is home composting! Organic waste generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, when it goes to landfill. By composting your organic waste, methane emissions are significantly reduced. In fact, if we reduced #foodwaste up to 33% by 2025 it would prevent over 1.1 million tonnes of carbon equivalent from being released into the atmosphere.
Third, where has the food come from and where has it been? You may have heard the term “locavore” applied to people who choose to eat food locally produced. Not only does this support local farms and food producers, it also has a significant impact on the emissions from transportation associated with the food. This also generally means you will be eating with the seasons, another climate win! However, while eliminating the transport of food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, shifting to a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles.
Another simple question you need to ask is if you can find a less packaged or package free option? Zero waste or package free shops are popping up more and more these days! If you don’t live near one of these shops, try to shop at your local farmers market and pass on the plastic or paper bag! This same strategy can be applied to supermarkets as well- always choose the loose produce when possible! There are also some exciting innovations in the world of packaging- Mushrooms, palm leaves, sugar cane, and seaweed are just a few of the interesting materials we expect to be the future of food packaging! To learn more about innovative materials, visit aplasticplanet.com. Another way to cut down your use of packaging is bringing your own lunch! A survey found that in the UK, it’s estimated that fast-food for lunch alone generates about 11 billion tonnes of packaging waste a year. For more information on our addiction to convenience at lunchtime, check out this Guardian article.
In conclusion, there are a myriad of ways we can participate in climate action through small changes in our everyday lives. Our diet, approach to food, and prioritisation of convenience at the cost of the planet is just one of the aspects of our everyday life that, through lifestyle changes, can make an enormous impact on our contribution to the climate crisis. I encourage you to think about your impact, start making changes, and spread the word. You can start being a climate warrior today!
 Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 10, 3508–3513. Publication Date:April 16, 2008 https://doi.org/10.1021/es702969f
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