Carbon Impact of Food
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All the useful bits to help you get the most out of Green Talking available on this page:
« Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local », Our World in Data
Karbon app for measuring carbon impact (France)
Giki app for measuring carbon impact (UK)
Other resources not mentioned in the episode:
Too Good To Waste app for reducing food waste
Happy Cow app for finding plant-based restaurants near you
Do you have other relevant resources to share with our listeners? Tell us in the comments!
Jennifer: Hello and welcome to the first episode of Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for good.
Cassie: You are listening to the only podcast designed to help you learn English through sustainability. I’m Cassie, I’m from America and I live in London and I work in social enterprise.
Jennifer: And I’m Jennifer. I’m the founder of Green Talk, I’m from Scotland and I live in France. Today we are going to talk about the carbon footprint of food. This session links to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 Responsible Consumption and Production. We will be looking at this goal a few times during our podcasts because it is one of the most important goals for Green Talk. We think it is where individuals can really have a positive impact. So, as you know Cassie, I moved to France a few years ago because I love the food here! Everything is just so amazing, the cheese, the wine, the vegetables from the local market, the seafood…. It’s all so delicious! So, when we are faced with so many amazing choices, what kind of information should we be thinking about, and how should we be making our decisions?
Cassie: Yeah it can be overwhelming, there are loads of things you can start to think about, for example the supply chain, the social impact, the health impact. And something that is not very well understood is the carbon footprint of our food.
Jennifer: Yeah definitely, the carbon footprint, or in other words, the environmental impact of our food.
Cassie: Yeah, most people are familiar with the idea of food miles, the environmental impact of transporting food, I think over the past ten years that has become really well understood. But there’s actually more to the subject than that.
Anytime you go into the grocery store you see a label on your food telling you how much it costs your wallet and the impact it could have on your health, but very rarely does it tell you what the impact might be on the environment. It’s just not something we really think about when we are buying bread and milk. Just like us travelling across the world, food has a carbon footprint. One of the easiest ways to reduce our carbon footprint is by making different food choices. So to better understand the subject, should we have some statistics?
Jennifer: I think we should! I think it is time for ‘Fun Facts with Cassie’! Let’s hear some statistics, Cassie!
Cassie: Ok Fact Number One – In a recent study 52 % of people said that the carbon footprint of food is not something they currently think about when buying products.
Jennifer: Wow, 52% of people do not think about the carbon footprint of their food, so that’s a very different level of awareness compared to what we have with transport for example.
Cassie: Fact Number Two – 10% to 30% of a household’s carbon footprint comes from food.
Jennifer: Wow that’s crazy, so 10-30% of the carbon footprint of a household is from food. I think most people usually think first about their heating and cooling, using their car, switching lights off and so on, I don’t think people expect one third of their carbon footprint to come from what they eat.
Cassie: And all of those other things are important too but 30% has the potential to significantly change our impact. Ok, Fact Number Three – The production of food accounts for 68% of emissions while the transportation accounts for only 5%.
Jennifer: So what we eat has more impact than where it comes from. So yeah some researchers have found out that for example by cutting meat and dairy products from your diet you could reduce your carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.
And there’s also a really big impact on land use as well – if everybody stopped eating dairy and meat, global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent, that’s an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined. Just if we stopped eating dairy and meat, all that land would be available for other uses. So why is that Cassie?
Cassie: Well, let’s think about the energy and resources needed to create your plate of food. So for example imagine a pepperoni pizza.
Jennifer: You do not have to tell me twice, I am visualising it now!
Cassie: So let’s think about the base – wheat flour, some olive oil and some tomatoes, or as you say, tomatoes (tomatoes, yeah!). Each of those ingredients will need land to grow on, will need to be watered, will need tended to by a farmer on their tractor, then harvested, processed and then transported. Then we have the cheese. And so here’s where it gets really interesting. The cheese of course is produced by a cow who will need to be fed for around 5 years more or less, and so we have to take into account all the crops that are grown to feed that cow (so the same land, water, farmer, processing that we mentioned a moment ago), plus the impact of the cow itself, the land and farming needed to look after her, the manure that emits gases, and then we get to the processing of the cheese. So we have a whole extra level of resource use. And then the pepperoni of course has the same issue plus the fact that the pig can’t carry on producing pepperoni for 5 years, it is very much a non-renewable resource.
Jennifer: Yeah so, meat and dairy can really increase our carbon impact, which means in theory, a coconut from Indonesia might have a lower environmental impact than a steak from a local farm! It seems crazy. But of course, in reality, it’s much more complex than that and there’s many other factors that come into play.
So shall we play a little game? So which item do you think has a greater impact? So greater greenhouse gas emissions per 1000 calories. Ok? (Ok) So first up – green beans or a piece of cheese?
Cassie: Hmm so in that example, there’d probably be more green beans than the piece of cheese to get 1000 calories, but I’m going to say the piece of cheese.
Jennifer: Well it’s a trick question – it depends!
If the green beans are air-transported, then they would have a greater impact. Foods which are air-transported actually are just about the only items where the transport does have a pretty heavy impact. Transport by boat, which is much much more common than by plane, isn’t too bad. The problem is knowing which is which, because this is rarely mentioned on labels!
Ok next up, fish or eggs? Which has a greater impact?
Cassie: Gosh is this another trick question, um I’m going to say fish?
Jennifer: Well it’s a trick question – it depends!
Yeah so it actually makes a difference whether your fish is wild or farmed. So whether it has been caught from the wild or whether it has been specifically farmed in a fish farm. And it also depends on what type of fish it is and the manner in which it is caught, or the manner in which it is farmed, etc, etc, etc. So there is a lot of different factors and again we often don’t have that information available.
So final question, sausages or chocolate?
Cassie: Hmm I’m going to say chocolate.
Jennifer: Well once again this is a trick question! So yeah it just depends. If there is beef in your sausages, then it’s bad news as beef, and the cows that it comes from, actually has a huge impact, but pork, from pigs, actually has a lower impact than chocolate….although there are still some exceptions. It really depends. It depends on the brand, it depends on the processes, the packaging etc etc
Cassie: So basically it is just a nightmare to try and work out the impact of what you are eating.
Jennifer: Yes! The only clear answer from this game! It is a nightmare to try and understand the impact of what you eat. As consumers, it is almost impossible to have access to the right information and to make informed choices.
However, there is some good news in amongst all this. More and more places are going beyond calories and making it about carbon. A US restaurant chain has recently announced that it will start labelling the carbon foot print of all items on their menu.
It’s so cool. I love the idea of being able to see the impact of what you are ordering. And this restaurant is not the only one. In the UK Quorn, a meat substitute company has started labelling their carbon footprint too. Since 2012 they’ve been working with a British organisation called the Carbon Trust to make sure they are capturing every part of the process. I think it will be really interesting to see which other companies and restaurants start to take this approach. You could definitely see it becoming normal, something just like calorie counts and health warning that we become used to seeing on our food packaging. And people can start to think of their carbon emissions kind of like ‘carbon calories’ for food.
Cassie: Wouldn’t it be great if there was some sort of calorie counter app for your carbon calories just like there are for your diet because, as you can tell, absolutely no idea how much carbon I should be aiming for each day.
Jennifer: There actually are a number of apps that offer a few services related to this. We will link to a few in the notes where you can scan items as you do your shopping and see what the carbon impact is. I’ve been using one recently that is so eye-opening. I ate a chocolate bar the other day and the app told me that it takes 31 days for a tree to absorb the carbon generated in producing that single chocolate bar! One month of a tree to absorb the carbon needed for one chocolate bar. It was quite a large chocolate bar, to be fair, but still.
Cassie: Still I think still the amount of time it takes is what start to put it into perspective. So there is definitely a challenge in trying to understand and visualise this kind of impact. Days of a tree is much more concrete than tonnes of CO2, which just so abstract. The BBC has created a fun carbon footprint of food calculator, which we’ll link to in the notes. It helps to explain our impact with some useful comparisons. So when I was playing around with it I plugged into the calculator eating a banana a day and what this means in terms that I feel like I could understand. So if I eat a banana every morning for a year this produces 25kg of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the weight of a checked bag on a flight. And that 25kg of greenhouse gas emissions is the equivalent of driving 37 miles in a petrol car, 2 days of heating my house or taking 29 showers. The 29 showers really put it in to perspective for me!
Jennifer: Wow so one banana per day for a year is the equivalent to taking 29 showers. Yeah that’s crazy. Should we just stop eating completely?!
Cassie: But yeah it’s not actually all doom and gloom. There are some really exciting things coming out talking about how food carbon is reducing, and as we mentioned for most people (myself included!) awareness is the first issue. So for example, in Canada, Justin Trudeau announced a 100 million dollar investment into plant based industries, which is really bringing the sector into the mainstream. It will be interesting to see if other governments invest in a similar way.
Jennifer: Yeah politically that is such an interesting development. A government making a decision like that suggests that they believe that our diets are shifting towards less meat consumption in the future. And Bill Gates has also recently invested into a few plant-based companies, and I guess he usually makes pretty smart decisions with his money. And says he thinks it is one of the best ways to save the planet.
Cassie: Global meat consumption is down for the first time in nine years, that’s a 3% drop from last year.It will be interesting to see if this continues after the pandemic. Some people think that this could be due to people cutting back on shopping bills because meat is expensive, because people are eating in restaurants less, or because of issues in producing and supplying meat due to COVID. Meat and dairy are responsible for up to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions so the 3% reduction of consumption that we have seen this year will definitely be having an impact on greenhouse emissions. And I think it is important to note that we as consumers have the power to demand change, to inform ourselves and to take action, because some companies are starting to realise the importance of having this conversation, but it isn’t happening fast enough.
Jennifer: Yeah and we definitely have the power not just to demand change but simply to demand information! Just to ask for that information so that we can make informed choices.
Cassie: For sure. As they say knowledge is power.
Jennifer: Totally yep.
Cassie: So that brings us towards the end of our episode today
Jennifer: Already?! So what has our chat made you think about today?
Cassie: Well first of all it has made me very hungry!
And after learning all of this I think the key takeaway for me is that I need to think about my food beyond just shopping locally. Of course buying local is a good start but I need also think about how much meat I eat a week as well as the bigger picture of emissions in my food.
Jennifer: I think for me the most important thing is variety. Suddenly stopping dairy and eating green beans instead isn’t necessarily the answer, I think the answer is being informed, making informed decisions and having varied diets. It’s ok to enjoy meat, dairy, eggs, whatever your special treat is, but we should understand the true environmental cost of what we are eating. I personally have reduced my meat and dairy intake a lot recently and to be honest it is really easy to do, and it’s becoming easier and easier as we see these initiatives and investments developing. But of course I still enjoy a treat and some delicious French food from time to time. The difference is just knowing that it is a special treat and it’s not something I should be eating every day.
Cassie: So thanks for joining the first episode of Green Talking, the podcast helping you learn English for Good. We’ll link to all of the topics discussed today in the podcast notes but we’re really to keen to hear from you. How have you made a change after today’s podcast? What have you learned? What would you like us to talk about next? You can join the conversation on social media at @greentalkfr. And we look forward to you joining us next week!
Jennifer: Thanks for listening! And my catchphrase of the week today is:
The future is knocking, let’s start Green Talking!
Cassie: Ok, you know, this is a start…
Jennifer: Shall I try something else next week?
Cassie: Yeah maybe by the end of the first season we’ll get somewhere with this…So keep brainstorming!
Jennifer: Thanks for joining, bye!
seafood => fish and other animals from the sea
wallet => where you keep your money
dairy => milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter etc…
manure => animal waste
basically => essentially, in essence
amongst => something part of a larger set
labelling => presenting information on a label, on the packaging
print => show on paper
apps => smartphone applications
eye-opening => experience or information which is surprising and informative
plugged => to enter data
doom and gloom => depression and fear
plant-based => vegan food
takeaway => a key fact, point, or idea to be remembered
intake => an amount of food, air, or another substance taken into the body
honest => true and sincere
keen => motivated
catchphrase => a sentence or phrase associated with a person or activity
awareness => public knowledge or perception of a situation or fact
brainstorming => creative technique to think of ideas