The food industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change: globally, 21–37% of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the food we put on our tables. But where do these emissions arise from and how can one eat climate-smart?
For many of us, food is a source of everyday joy, and obviously it’s something we can’t go without. However, 21–37% of global emissions originates from the food we eat (FAO, 2020) and due to a growing population and demand, the climate impact of food just keeps on growing — unless we start changing how we produce and consume food.
There are several sources of emissions within the food industry. Deforestation for breaking new cropland, usage of machinery for harvesting and food processing as well as transportation of products are all examples of processes that generate greenhouse gas emissions. Around 12% of global emissions are direct emissions from agriculture: from the rumination of livestock, manure management, the use of fertilisers, and rice cultivation (CAIT, 2019). The remaining 8% of food-related emissions come from transportation of food, sales, marketing, and storage in grocery stores.
In general, meat causes higher emissions than crops since it’s higher up the food chain. Energy that could have been fed directly to humans is first fed to the livestock, and since there are always some losses on the way, it’s a less efficient system. In addition, land that could have been used to grow crops for humans has to be used to produce feed instead, and additional land is needed for the livestock to graze. Red meat is particularly troublesome, as ruminants (like cows and sheep, for example) produce a lot of methane.
Imagine for example a typical bull that is slaughtered at the age of 19 months. During that time, the bull emits 93 kg of methane and consumes 240 000 liters of water and 3400 kg of food. A lot of land is required to produce feed for the bulls, which can result in loss of biodiversity, animal habitat and carbon sinks.
As a consequence of the high emissions from beef production, also dairy products have quite a high impact on the climate. In Finland, by replacing all kinds of meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, you could reduce your emissions from food by as much as 60%.
While eating more vegetarian food is better for the climate, it is not always easy to determine which is the most climate-smart alternative in terms of production processes and country of origin. For example, a Finnish tomato grown in a greenhouse can have a higher carbon footprint than a tomato grown in Spain and transported to Finland. In general, however, seasonal food is good for the climate, as it grows without greenhouses and therefore consumes less energy.
Contrary to common belief, transport emissions from food are often very low; only 6% of the food system’s total emissions originate from transportation of food (Poore & Nemecek, 2018).
From a climate perspective, what you eat matters more than where it came from.
Fruits and vegetables are mostly transported by truck (from southern Europe) or by ferry (from Asia, Oceania, or South America). Some sensitive food types are transported by flight to keep them fresh. These include e.g. fresh berries, figs, asparagus, snap peas, and green beans. In these cases, preferring locally produced is the climate-smart choice.
While it is good to think of what we eat, and to a certain extent where it comes from, we should also focus on minimizing food waste. We humans tend to produce lots of food, pack it, transport it, and cool it, just to throw it away instead of eating it.
The sad truth is, one third of all the food produced for human consumption is wasted.
Every year, the average European causes 680 kg CO2-eq by throwing away food. That is more than the emissions of a round-trip flight within Europe, and even more than the average Finn saves by switching to renewable electricity.
Even though all parts of the food production chain — such as agriculture, packing and processing, and transport — produce food waste, households are responsible for almost 40% of the emissions from food waste. The households’ impact is this big because the carbon footprint of a ready-made product is always bigger than that of its raw ingredients. When you throw away a package of yoghurt, all the resources that are needed for production, packing, transport, and cooling have already been used.
Not only is our high consumption of animal products problematic climate-wise, it’s not doing any favours for our health either — on the contrary. According to Finnish nutrition recommendations, you should eat 500 g of vegetables, fruits and berries each day as we need the vitamins and nutrients they contain to stay healthy. However, not many people manage to do that.
A study from 2018 by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare found that only 14% of Finnish men and 22% of the women eat the recommended amount of vegetables, fruits and berries. This, even though research shows that eating fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of for example cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. In addition, 79% of the men and 26% of the women eat more red or processed meat than recommended.
On average, the yearly emissions from food in Finland are 1800 kg CO2-eq per person. By switching to a vegetarian diet it is possible to reduce one’s carbon footprint from food by 35% to 1100 kg CO -eq per year. If you replace all kinds of meat and dairy for a plant-based diet, you reduce your emissions from food by 60% to 700 kg CO2-eq per year, and you’ve got yourself some real climate-friendly eating habits!
Such big lifestyle changes as changing one’s diet might not happen in the blink of an eye, and that is ok. Already by exchanging a 150 g serving of beef for chicken once every week for a whole year, you save 180 CO2-eq. If every single Finn were to accept the challenge, we would save 988 million kg of CO2-eq – the equivalent of 3.8 million round-trips from Helsinki to Rovaniemi by car. Even if you are already a vegetarian, you can still reduce your food emissions quite a bit: adding one vegan day per week for a year saves approximately 65 kg of CO2-eq, or 400 km worth of driving!
It is good to keep in mind that our choice of diet is often affected by other factors than just the climate. Availability, price, personal taste and cultural factors also play an important role. Therefore, learning the order of magnitude of the climate impact of different food types is already a large first step.
Check out the picture below to get some tips on how to get started.
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CAIT Climate Data Explorer, 2019
Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare, 2017
Poore, J., Nemecek, T., 2018
Röös, E., 2012