What is the real carbon footprint of your diet? The answer may surprise you

By HarperLees

As the impact of climate change becomes ever clearer, you might be thinking about how to live more sustainably and reduce your carbon footprint.

There are plenty of ways to lessen your environmental impact, from switching to an electric vehicle to attaching solar panels to your roof or switching off the lights when you leave a room.

But what about the carbon footprint of your diet?

The food we eat accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And while consumers are generally in favour of carbon footprint labelling on food, research suggests that consumers’ “gut feeling” about food’s sustainable credentials is often wrong.

Keep reading for a breakdown of the food we eat, and the carbon footprint of your diet.

A rise in environmental consciousness is changing UK food habits

This summer, the UK experienced record-breaking temperatures as wildfires raged in Spain and North America.

As the effects of the climate crisis become increasingly tangible – and governments’ targets under the Paris Agreement look increasingly unattainable – we are all becoming more conscious of the impact of our own actions.

World food production, including land use, crop production, and supply chains accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Once you add in the 2.5 billion tons of food that is wasted each year, the figure rises to a third of all emissions.

This is likely one reason why Brits are looking to change their diets.

A recent survey, published in Grocery Gazette, suggests that almost half (49%) of Brits are looking to change their diet to be healthier, plant-based, and more sustainable.

The number of Brits who consider themselves meat-eaters has reduced by 5% from 2019, down to 78% from 83%. Half of those surveyed said that they were looking to reduce or continue reducing their meat intake.

Of those surveyed, 7% confirmed that they were planning to go vegan, while 12% are looking to turn vegetarian.

So, what are the foods with the biggest carbon footprint that you should be looking to reduce or cut from your diet?

5 of the biggest climate culprits in your diet

1. Red meat

According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data, cattle raised for beef production create a staggering 99.48kg of greenhouse gas emissions for every kilo of food produced. Processes vary across the globe, with figures ranging from 40kg to 210kg.

Fillet, ribeye, and sirloin steak are the top three worst offenders.

Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, recently told the Telegraph that “The most important change we can make to reduce the carbon footprint of our diet is to eat less meat.”

Cutting down on red meat, specifically beef and lamb, can be useful in cutting down the production of methane.

Interestingly, Sustainable Food Trust confirms a drop in red meat consumption is already underway, with beef and lamb consumption down 4% and 30% respectively, since 2000.

2. Fish

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), meanwhile, confirmed in its 2020 ‘State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture’ report that around one-third of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited and in decline.

As with the environmental impact of cattle and sheep farming, the effect varies by species and location.

3. Dairy

Greenhouse gas emissions from the production of dairy products such as milk and cheese are also high.

There is one simple step you can take in the dairy aisle to make your diet more sustainable: switch out cow’s milk for a plant-based alternative and you could halve your emissions. Rice, oat, and soya milk are your best options.

The detrimental effect on the environment of almond milk is also relatively low, but this needs to be weighed against the amount of water used in its production.

Cheese placed fifth on Our World in Data’s list of high-emissions foods, producing 23.9kg for every kilo of product.

4. Fruit and vegetables

You might think that fruit and vegetables have a high carbon footprint due to the distances they need to travel to reach us.

Yet, Hannah Ritchie confirms that while “people often think ‘eat locally’ is the most important thing they can do… transport accounts for only a small percentage of food’s emissions”. This is true for Kent apples and Costa Rican bananas.

One reason for low transport emissions is that goods are often transported by ship, rather than aeroplane.

On the other hand, high emissions outside of transportation generally come from high amounts of water usage or growing in heated greenhouses.

5. Snacks

If you want to cut the carbon footprint of your diet and stay healthy, cutting out snacks is a great way to do it.

Chocolate and ice cream are the worst offenders in this category, partly due to deforestation and unrecyclable packaging.

Keep an eye out for healthy and eco-friendly alternatives to your favourite snacks.