Demystifying the Carbon Footprint of our Food

Throughout my experience within Embellir, I’ve come to realise that people don’t often associate food waste with Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions - and neither did I when I started Embellir. Yet, whether it is the pizza you ate last night, the oatmeal and eggs you ate this morning or even the fruit and salad you had for lunch - it has a carbon footprint, impacting our environment. What I’m trying to say is that we are not just throwing out edible food, but the whole process through which this food went before ending up on our plate as well. There is a long and winding road from the farm to your plate - which can be reduced by being mindful of which foods you buy and when!

To reduce my own footprint, I used to focus on prioritizing local products that haven't traveled long distances to get to my grocery store, along with minimally packaged products when shopping. It seemed logical that these two aspects of the agricultural distribution channel were critical in lowering the GHG emissions of my food. Through my research, however, I discovered that the nature of the product itself accounts for the majority of its footprint. Indeed, to reduce the carbon footprint of our food, we should rather focus on what we eat, not whether our food is local. Purchasing local products remains key in terms of supporting your local economy and small-scale production practices. In terms of the footprint of our food however, transport only accounts for a fraction of the total emissions, minimizing the environmental benefits of buying local. Numbers speak better than words - to illustrate the above points and to give you an overview of which food types to prioritize, here is a graph from OurWorldinData.org which breaks down the GHG emissions of major food categories:

As we can see on the graph, land use change, farming processes and animal feeding account for the vast majority of GHG emissions. Transport and packaging, however, only account for a minimal fraction of the total footprint. I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t be mindful of the latter factors, but rather that we are often led to focus on the wrong aspects of this problem. This is largely due to the opacity of the agri-food industry, the misinformation spread by lobbies, and the tendency of large corporations to shame consumers on their habits (buy local, use less packaging, recycle, etc...) instead of questioning the production methods or our dietary habits.

Looking at the different food categories on the above graph, it is surprising to see how big of a gap there can be between the footprint of products like meat and fruits. Indeed, for a kilogram of beef, the GHG emissions are up to 150 times higher than that of a kilogram of apples. Even more surprising is the fact that some products have a positive GHG impact - such as nuts, which contribute to positive land use change through the replacement of croplands by nut trees, producing significantly more oxygen while trapping CO2 (photosynthesis).

To conclude, while everyone should be consuming what they feel comfortable with, the crucial part is to be informed. People have their own dietary preferences, habits, traditions and I am not trying to force you to change these, but rather to encourage you to get curious and make informed decisions.

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