What's the one change you should make to cut your food emissions?
The food supply chain is responsible for over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. With the government committing to reducing UK emissions to almost zero by 2050, is it time to rethink your own diet's contribution?
We ask the experts what's the one thing we should do today to lower our dietary emissions.
Demand environmental labelling
“One of the most important things we can do as consumers is ask that producers put environmental labels on their food”, says Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford.
“Two products that look exactly the same in the shops can have dramatically different impacts on the environment. Today we have no way of telling them apart. For example, a bar of chocolate could create 7kg of CO2 – the same as driving 30 miles in a typical petrol car – or zero emissions if the trees are growing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Adding environmental labels to foods wouldn’t just allow us to make better choices, it would mean that producers would have to measure their environmental impacts – something that is rarely done today – and then compete on them. We already know labelling works in other sectors. Countries that require energy labels on household appliances see energy efficiency increase three times faster than countries that don’t.
“However, the lowest impact beef is still responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land than beans and pulses.
“The single biggest way to reduce your impact right now is to avoid meat and dairy. It’s far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”
“You can learn more about this issue by listening to my recent presentation.
“Labels must therefore highlight both sustainable producers and sustainable products, supporting the crucial transition to far lower levels of meat and dairy in our diets.”
Joseph Poore, University of Oxford, is the author of recent research: Reducing Food's Environmental Impacts through Producers and Consumers
Move towards a plant-based diet
“Meat causes 60 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Eating less meat and dairy is one practical thing we can all do to reduce our dietary emissions”, says Richard George, Head of Forests, Greenpeace UK. “But big brands and food companies must also take responsibility.
“In the UK we’re eating less red meat nowadays, but our chicken consumption is rising. That’s a problem because chicken is fed on soya. Forests and other habitats such as the Brazilian Cerrado, the world’s most wildlife-rich savannah, are being wiped out to grow crops like soya, 90 percent of which is fed to animals. In the last 10 years an area of forest twice the size of the UK has been destroyed for soya, palm oil, cattle and other commodities.
“Scientists say we must more than halve our consumption of all meat and dairy to prevent climate breakdown. Eating more grains, fruit and veg and less meat means we can get more food from less land, reducing the pressure to convert forests into farmland. It’s much healthier for us too.”
Eat grass-fed meat
“The single most important thing we can do is to eat in such a way that our farmers are able to introduce sustainable farming methods”, says Patrick Holden, Founding Director of the Sustainable Food Trust. “This enables them to rebuild the soil carbon that has been lost during the period of industrial agriculture.
“There is a growing consensus that sustainable diets should avoid all intensively produced chicken, pork and dairy products, and include more vegetables and other fresh foods, including grains, nuts and pulses.
“Where we differ from other organisations is in our advocacy of sustainable diets to include increased consumption of grass-fed or mainly grass-fed beef and lamb.... Unless we purchase these products, it will be impossible for our farmers to introduce fertility-building grasslands into their crop rotations, which will be essential to rebuild soil carbon stocks.”
Send just one letter, email or tweet
“You’ll slash the greenhouse gas emissions of your, or your family’s, diet by eating less – and better – meat and dairy”, says Clare Oxborrow, campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “But you can start to achieve a wider benefit to the planet by being an ‘active food citizen’.... This can involve talking to retailers about where they source their products, lobbying your local politicians, or getting involved in projects to increase green space and local food production in your community. You might have previously written things like this off as needing too much of your time, but you can start right now. Just one letter, email or tweet is all you need to start your journey as an environmental campaigner.”
“To reduce your environmental impact, eat organic food”, says Rob Percival, Head of Food and Health Policy, the Soil Association. “Organic farming... can help to tackle climate change because organic soils are healthier and store more carbon. If all UK farming was converted to organic, at least 1.3 million tonnes of carbon would be taken up by the soil each year – the equivalent of taking nearly 1 million cars off the road.
“Organic farming is also better for nature. Intensive agriculture is dependent on chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, which can harm wildlife. Recent studies have linked pesticide use to a collapse in global insect populations. Studies have shown that wildlife is 50 percent more abundant on organic than on non-organic farms. Every time you buy organic, you're helping nature to thrive.”
Eating healthily has more benefits than one
“Adopting a healthy, sustainable diet can help us achieve a 30 percent reduction in our carbon footprint by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, according to our Livewell research”, says Emma Keller, Head of Food Commodities, WWF UK. “This means we need more legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables on our plates, and less meat – red, white and ultra-processed – dairy and cheese. Following the WWF’s six Livewell principles can help lead a more healthy, sustainable life.
“Our flagship Living Planet Report last year highlighted that overuse of natural resources on land and in the oceans, plus agricultural activity driven by human consumption, are the dominant causes of current wildlife declines and the destruction of forests, oceans and landscapes.”