The Carbon Footprint of Food


Have you ever thought of how much fossil fuel was needed to warm the glass house where your strawberry has growth? Or how long your pineapple had to travel before you could have it in your dessert? Unfortunately, everything we consume have caused a certain emission of earth-warming gases. The carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, event or product [1]. With regards to foods, factors that contribute to the total set of GHG emissions are for instance the production proces of the food, packaging, storage, distribution to retailer and finally the transportation to your own house and the processes in your own kitchen. The way these factors are processed can make a major difference in amount of emission; growing fruits in a warmed glasshouse gives much more emission than growing on the land and distribution through shipping is more ‘green’ than transportation by plain.

Our food system is responsible for one third of the total global greenhouse emissions [2]. Thereof, 83% is dominated by the productions phase, while transportation only counts for 11% in U.S. households [3]. So, although you might think to act ‘green’ and ‘ecological’ by buying a tomato which is produced in your own country, it might be the case that this tomato growed in a hothouse which was warmed by burning fossil fuels to power the hothouses. This might have caused much more emissions than the transportation of the tomato by shipping after it was produced in Spain, where it could grow on the land due to the warmer climate. It might be clear that the calculations of the carbon footprint of a products is not that simple and that a lot of factors have to be taken into account.

But; what can you do to keep your own carbon footprint as low as possible? It is important to be aware of your food- choice and that you look at the alternatives and seasonal products that are available. First, and most important, much profit can be gained by eating less meat and dairy products, which are responsible for 18% of the total total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Fruit and vegetables are ‘lower carbon’ options, but although fruits and vegetables as a whole category contribute fewer emissions than animal proteins, air-freighting or hothouse-grown are very emissions-intensive [2].
Since it might be difficult to know which fruits and vegetables have a low carbon footprint, the organisation ‘Milieu Centraal’ has made a fruit and vegetable calender (in Dutch/Flamish), where you can easily find what Energy label (from A, a ‘green choice’ to F, a fruit/vegetable with a high carbon footprint) a certain fruit or vegetable has in which month. This can be a help with making better and ‘greener’ food choices in daily life.

[1] ‘What is a carbon footprint’,carbontrust, UK Carbon Trust. Copyright 2011.
[2] ‘Low Carbon Diet’,circleofresponsibility, Bon App├ętit Management Company. Copyright 2007
[3] Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, Christopher L. Weber & H. Scott Matthews, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213 Received November 28, 2007. Revised manuscript received March 4, 2008. Accepted March 14, 2008.