Food and climate impact

Words: Root + Bone   Illustration by Ellis Van Der Does

Food and climate impact

Labelling food and drink for emissions


Ever wondered how much CO2 and greenhouse gas is produced by growing, farming, processing, packaging and transporting the food and drink you buy?
Our food system accounts for 25% of the world’s total climate foot print which dwarfs emissions made by all our planes, trains, cars and buses put together. Yet it’s almost impossible to get a measure on climate impact for individual food and drink items. This leaves consumers with a missing piece of the puzzle when they want to make informed decisions.
One way to tackle this would be to include C02 emissions on all food labelling, and make it a mandatory alongside ingredients and ‘best before’ statements. With this information you could nerd out on numbers rather than feeling guilty that you want to help the environment, but having no way to make a meaningful comparison.
Talking with Swedish company Oatly, we discovered that they have been reading our minds. From now on, they will be labelling all products with a number that defines the climate impact from the oat field to the store. In their own words, they believe
“with the right information, people can make better food and drink choices to help reduce their climate impact”.
Just imagine if Theresa May had been putting this kind of labelling into legislation instead of doing her bit for the environment with daily air miles to and from Brussels for the last two years?
If C02 labelling was mandatory, someone buying raspberries from Morocco would be made aware of the air freight C02, but also the impact on the local environment where the fruit was grown. This would include how it was farmed and fertilised, the packaging and refrigeration throughout supply chain. Faced with a C02 number summarising the bigger picture, maybe they would hold off till local fruit was in season.
A system like this would also highlight the differences between cow’s milk, which involves a lot of cows burping and farting, versus non-dairy alternatives. According to research done by Oatly,
“if you swap one litre of British whole cow’s milk for one litre of Oat Drink, you would save 1.16kg of C02e”.
As a general rule, meat and dairy products have the biggest climate impact. When you compare the nutritional value of plants, versus feeding plants to animals to get the bacon, steak and milk that humans crave, it’s a grossly inefficient process. And once you have your bacon, steak and milk you need to keep them refrigerated, which creates even more greenhouse gases. Let’s all pause for a moment and let the vegans say “I told you so.”
Putting emissions numbers on packaging may sound relatively simple, but calculating the numbers is a complex science. Many food and drinks are made from multiple ingredients, each having their own unique characteristics that need consideration.
Milk sourced from two different suppliers might have different C02 values. Maybe one dairy herd is grazing on land that was cleared from rainforest, and another dairy is located closer to its end-user, needing less transport. Oats grown in two different locations might be processed differently with one using solar power, versus a factory powered by fossil fuels. When it comes to packaging, foil lined cartons might save on refrigeration, but this has to be balanced against the materials being less recyclable at the end of their life.
This has led to specialised industry players such as CarbonCloud in the UK, who have made a business of calculating C02 emissions for brands and the hospitality industry. CarbonCloud has partnered with Oatly to provide the numbers on their packaging, and all values are expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (C02e). This is the same measure used by the UNFCCC and The European Commission, which converts the varying effects of different gases into the equivalent amount of C02 it would take to create the same greenhouse effect. This standardisation is important when you consider that cows release methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28-36 times more potent than C02.
But even CarbonCloud admit it’s hard to make side by side comparisons with data when there are so many uncertainties relating to biological processes, such as nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural fields, and livestock methane emissions. It’s also complicated to allocate numbers when you might have a cow that produces milk, meat and leather over the course of its life cycle - so how do you fairly attribute CO2 to each of these things?
From a consumer point of view, it seems everyone has an opinion on excessive packaging, waste and recycling, but there’s still a sense of not being able to see the complete picture when C02 emissions are not visible at the point of purchase. It’s a bit like driving an electric car but never knowing how the electricity at the other end of the cable is being generated. Unlike cars and appliances which have the incentive of lower running costs when you choose a more efficient model, this is about being able to take responsibility for your personal contributions.
So hats off to Oatly and any other companies who are being pro-active in this space, and taking the initiative with C02 labelling. Hopefully legislation and other food and drink producers will follow their lead.
GG / greenhouse gas emissions per serving
Common food items ranked by maximum kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per serving.(Note: individual emissions can vary by location, method of farming and processing.)
Beef < 14.0
Farmed prawns < 6.50
Lamb < 6.00
Chocolate < 6.00
Farmed fish < 4.00
Pork < 3.00
Chicken < 3.00
Cheese < 2.00
Coffee < 1.50
Beer < 1.25
Dairy Milk < 1.25
Eggs < 1.25
Tofu < 1.00
Beans < 1.00
Nuts < 1.00