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Reducing Your Carbon Footprint: A Guide to Climate-Friendly Food Choices

Reduce your carbon footprint with Klimato's guide to climate-friendly food choices. Discover impacts of meat, dairy, fish, carbs, and more!

May 25, 2023

Think you know which foods have the biggest impact on our planet? Get ready to be astounded as we delve deep into the carbon footprint of different ingredients. But before we jump right into it, let’s start with giving a bit of background to all of this.

So why should you care about what you eat? Well, it turns out that food is actually responsible for around one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing this number is one of the biggest and most important challenges we are facing in the world. If we look on the bright side however, the food space is where we can make the biggest difference. So by being a little bit picky with what we put on our plate, we can actually cut all food related emissions in half! 

“But how would I know which food is better or worse for the climate?” you might ask yourself… Enter Klimato! We work with making sense of data related to food and help quantifying and communicating it in an easy way. To gather this data, we use a research method called LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) to meticulously track the carbon footprint of ingredients from production to store shelves (farm to industry gate). The impact, as you will see further down, is measured in kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents) - which essentially is the accumulation of different greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane). If you're intrigued and want to learn more about the impact of your favourite type of food, keep reading as we uncover fascinating insights that might reshape your perspective 🌍

Proteins 🥩

So, which ingredient has the highest carbon footprint? You probably guessed it – meat. But did you know that red meat has a carbon footprint of around 28 kg CO2e/kg? That’s due to ruminating animals, like cows, sheep, and goats, producing methane through their farts and burps. But don’t worry, chicken and pork have a lower carbon footprint (4.1 kg CO2e/kg and 5.9 kg CO2e/kg respectively), making them great alternatives. Even better would be to swap meat for legumes and pulses (lentils, beans, peas, soy) or tofu, which have a carbon footprint that’s only 3% of what beef emits (1).

Dairy 🧀

Dairy is another culprit, with butter being the worst offender at 11.5 kg CO2e/kg (1). This is due to requiring large amounts of raw milk, actually 20 times more than producing milk and 4 to 5 times more than cheese (2). A more climate conscious alternative to butter is vegetable oils, with an average impact of 3.5 kg CO2e/kg, which is about one third compared to butter (3). From one favourite to the other, we have the beloved cheese - a food product many find to be the hardest ingredient to swap out. With an average of around 9 kg CO2e/kg (1), cheese nearly qualifies in the heavyweight class when it comes to greenhouse gas emission. However, fear not! There are plenty of plant-based alternatives popping up with about half the climate impact. Nutritional yeast for example emits 39% less emissions than traditional cheese (4), making it a sustainable and delicious choice!

Fish & Shellfish 🐟

While you may think that a pescatarian diet is environmentally friendly, there are considerations to keep in mind. Trawling for shellfish is a very fuel-intensive method and damages the sea floor. When lobsters and prawns are caught, other species are caught in the net too, adding to the carbon footprint. Farmed fish also have their own hotspots for carbon emissions, with feed production and farm energy use being the culprits. To minimise your impact, choose fish that swim close to the surface so as to not damage the seafloor.  There are also exceptions when it comes to shellfish, for example mussels on average have a quite low carbon footprint of around 1.5 kg CO2e/kg (5).

Here are a few examples of the least to the most impactful finfish (1):

Low: pilchards, pollock, carp, herring and mackerel 
Medium:
salmon, cod and trout
High:
hake, anglerfish, swordfish and turbot

Carbohydrates 🥔

When it comes to carbs, not all are created equal. Rice cultivation, for example, is responsible for 10-13% of worldwide methane emissions (6), making it the worst carbohydrate for the climate. This is due to methanotrophs (soil microorganisms) in the paddy fields producing the strong greenhouse gas methane. Pasta and potatoes, on the other hand, have a much lower carbon footprint. Potatoes, in particular, are climate-heroes with an average value of only 0.2 kg of CO2e/kg (3).

Fruit & Vegetables 🍎

And finally, we’re on the lower end of the scale with climate-friendly ingredients – fruits and vegetables. While they generally have a lower carbon footprint, there is a difference between produce grown in an open field (0.5 kg CO2e/kg) and those cultivated in heated greenhouses (2.8 kg CO2e) (1). Heated greenhouses require significant energy for heating and lighting, resulting in higher carbon emissions. The best tip we can give is to buy produce that is grown in season and in a local open field. Now, if you really do need those tomatoes in the middle of March, then opt for Spanish grown tomatoes grown in an open field, rather than Dutch grown tomatoes from a heated greenhouse. It’s worth noting that transportation (excluding air-travel) accounts for only around 6% of the overall carbon footprint of most food products (7).

To wrap it all up 🌯

Here are some key takeaways to bring with you if you want to eat more sustainably. If you’d like to learn more about climate-friendly eating, then we recommend you read our blog post on the ‘Climatarian diet’.

  • Meat and dairy are the main culprits, so consider alternatives like legumes and tofu. Chicken is also a good option if you still want to eat meat.
  • Prioritise fish that swim closer to the surface, such as pollock, herring and mackerel, rather than deep sea species like cod. 
  • Choose pasta or potatoes over rice as your carbohydrate options.
  • Opt for local and in-season produce whenever possible. Otherwise choose an ingredient that is in season but grown abroad in an open field. 

We hope you found this guide helpful and learned a thing or two to bring with you next time you go shopping or eat out. By incorporating these key takeaways into your diet, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable future. Together we can make a difference, one meal at a time!

Join us in our mission to make the food industry more eco-friendly! At Klimato, we provide a tool for calculating, communicating and reporting the carbon footprint of your food, empowering you to make climate-friendly choices. If you work in the food or hospitality business and want to learn more, then get in touch! 🌍

Sources:

  1. Clune et al., 2017
  2. Djekic et al., 2014
  3. Poore et al., 2018
  4. Agribalyse 3.1 (ADEME, 2022)
  5. Klimato Carbon Footprint Database
  6. Neue, 1997
  7. Our World In Data (https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local)

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