Curious Cook: Food and greenhouse gas emissions


If those with carnivorous inclinations around the world reduced their beef consumption by 50% and ate chicken instead, this would save 1.635 billion tonnes of food system emissions entering the atmosphere. — KAROLINA GRABOWSKA/Pexels

The news of the month must be the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland. COP means “Conference of the Parties” and this is its 26th party. And in my opinion, it has not gone as well as fervently hoped by many.

For a start, the omens did not bode well when the host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, started with a lecture about the clock being at one minute to midnight for humanity and then proceeded to be 30 minutes late for subsequent meetings himself.

This is compounded by same evening flights from Glasgow to London and back via a private jet to attend a dinner party hosted by a climate change denier at an exclusive London club. This incredibly selfish act added a few more tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Regardless of the antics of the host and some major disappointing outcomes such as India’s inability to meet a net zero target before 2070 and Indonesia’s disagreement to ending deforestation by 2030, COP26 may have achieved what a realist might have expected.

And the reality is that not a lot will be done which can limit global temperatures rising by over 1.5C, but at least, global warming is on the agenda for many governments now. That is a good start, though it remains to be seen if all the world leaders take the issue seriously enough. After all, China, Brazil, and Russia did not even officially attend COP26.

The current likely trajectory is for global temperature rises to hit and probably exceed 1.5C by the 2030s (regardless of whatever measures are agreed during COP26), with a pre-COP26 target of a rise of 2.7C by the end of the century. However, if all the COP26 pledges and planned actions are adopted in full, then an end target rise limited to 1.8C may be feasible.

The current likely trajectory is for global temperature rises to hit and probably exceed 1.5C by the 2030s. — GUILLAUME FALCO/PexelsThe current likely trajectory is for global temperature rises to hit and probably exceed 1.5C by the 2030s. — GUILLAUME FALCO/Pexels

A rise of 1.8C is significantly better than a rise of 2.7C and may mean better survival probabilities for millions of people and some natural wildlife and habitats. Climate models have suggested immense impacts of even 0.1C increments in global temperatures.

At this point, a misconception about temperature targets needs to be cleared up. Many people think the oft-mentioned target of 1.5C is an additional 1.5C on top of current temperatures. This is not true. The upper target limit of 1.5C recommended by scientists INCLUDES all the heating since before the industrialisation of the world. And industrialisation has already added 1.1C to global temperatures so the world is now only 0.4C away from the 1.5C limit specified by scientists.

To put this into context, if you puff on hardened ice cream to soften it before eating, your breath would have heated the ice cream by very much more than 0.4C.

Global food costs

If one thing is clear, it is that we cannot rely solely on most of our leaders to care about us or our future, and certainly not about the future of our children. So, if we all want to do something to help the situation, we can start by looking at what and how we eat.

To this end, the EU had launched a sophisticated project called EDGAR-FOOD, deemed as the world’s first food emission inventory. It covers the years between 1990 to 2015. EDGAR-FOOD monitors and calculates the impacts of all stages of food production and processing, and its data indicates that around 34% of all man-made greenhouse gases (GHG) are generated by food systems.

On average, every living person on the planet accounts for the equivalent of just over 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year, and in 2015 alone, food systems emissions (FSE) added 18 billion tonnes of GHG into the atmosphere that year.

Even the production of cans for sodas and foods have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. — BREAKINGPIC/PexelsEven the production of cans for sodas and foods have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. — BREAKINGPIC/Pexels

EDGAR-FOOD surveyed a wide range of activities related to food and calculated the FSE impact of each activity. The types of FSE monitored are CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and industrial fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). Of the 18 billion tonnes of FSE emitted in 2015, 52% was CO2, 35% was methane, 11% is nitrous oxide, and 2% fluorinated gases.

In the data, we see that many things we take for granted have significant impacts on GHG emissions, ranging from production of cans for drinks and food, glass production, HFCs used in refrigeration, transportation/shipping, production of agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, fertilisers, etc. The database even drills down to emissions linked to retail and home cooking, food wrappings, disposal of food wastes, fuel used for shopping trips, and so on.

The statistics gathered by EDGAR-FOOD are interesting. As expected, 66% of FSE in 2015 was linked to farming and the use of agricultural land, including “land use changes” such as deforestation and soil degradation.

Land use alone accounted for 5.76 billion tonnes of FSE, which was more than all the emissions produced by power generation in the USA for that year. Additional farming practices such as application of fertilisers/chemicals, planting, raising livestock, harvesting, storage, etc, added another 7.20 billion tonnes.

Over 60% of food systems emissions are linked to farming and the use of agricultural land. — NICHOLAS VEITHEN/PexelsOver 60% of food systems emissions are linked to farming and the use of agricultural land. — NICHOLAS VEITHEN/Pexels

Outside of agricultural land, 21% of FSE in 2015 was related to energy generation used for growing, processing and transporting food, 4% was linked to industrial processes and 9% was associated with waste disposal, including incineration and landfills.

There were some unexpected insights into how much our food costs in terms of FSE. For example, 5% of FSE (900 million tonnes) in 2015 was generated by transportation/delivery services. Food packaging and refrigeration also contributed another 900 million tonnes, food distribution and/or preparation in food outlets created 720 million tonnes, and waste disposal services added a whopping 1.62 billion tonnes (9%) of FSE. Even the consumption of food at home or in food outlets added 540 million tonnes of FSE.

There are two limitations to the EDGAR-FOOD database. The obvious one is that the data stops in the year 2015. The other major issue is that it does not decompose FSE into specific foods nor categorise foods into means of production.

For example, beef is part of a group called, “Enteric fermentation (Sheep; Goats; Horses; Swine; Dairy cattle; Non-dairy cattle; Camels and Lamas; Mules and asses; Buffalo).” Still, it is useful as an insightful global snapshot of the state of FSE.

Your food costs

Other studies, particularly a 2018 study from Oxford University (Poore & Nemecek), provided more details on the FSE of specific foods. The data suggests that each kilo of beef costs 60 kilos of FSE, whereas plant-based foods such as soya beans and root vegetables cost less than a kilo of FSE per kilo of food.

Each kilo of beef costs 60 kilos of food systems emissions, as opposed to chicken which costs 6 kilos. — KASUMI LOFFLER/PexelsEach kilo of beef costs 60 kilos of food systems emissions, as opposed to chicken which costs 6 kilos. — KASUMI LOFFLER/Pexels

Lamb or mutton costs 24 kilos of FSE per kilo, dairy products 21 kilos, while pork and poultry costs 7 and 6 kilos of FSE per kilo of meat. All the above FSE costs include land use, processing, transport, retail, and packaging costs.

Curiously, a kilo of rice grown in wet paddy fields costs 4 kilos of FSE. This is because flooded fields emit methane. Another interesting observation is a study by the BBC which found that beef produced in deforested lands have an even higher FSE of 80 kilos per kilo of meat.

The conclusion is obvious. Animal proteins simply cost much more in FSE compared to plant-based foods. Therefore, one thing people can do to reduce their carbon footprint is simply to cut down on foods like beef, lamb, and dairy, especially beef.

Plant-based foods such as soy beans cost less than a kilo of food system emissions per kilo of food. — POLINA TANKILEVITCH/PexelsPlant-based foods such as soy beans cost less than a kilo of food system emissions per kilo of food. — POLINA TANKILEVITCH/Pexels

There is no need to become vegetarian, though it may help. Changing from a beef steak to a chicken steak will immediately reduce the carbon footprint of a meal ten-fold (or even more). Including more plant-based foods can further reduce animal protein consumption and almost certainly improve dietary health. The ideal diet may be a sensible flexitarian diet, with less red meats, less dairy products, and more vegetables.

To calculate the effect of mildly adjusting our diets, in the year 2020, the world produced 60.57 million tonnes of beef. According to Poore & Nemecek, this would equate to the production of 3.634 billion tonnes of FSE, a number which is a good fit for the EDGAR-FOOD data as well as other studies.

If the world reduced beef consumption by 50% and ate chicken instead, this would save 1.635 billion tonnes of FSE entering the atmosphere. For variety, you can also switch to pork or fish. The savings would be even more if you obtained your meat locally and cooked it at home.

If we cannot fully trust our governments to look after our futures or the futures of our children, then it would probably make sense to do something ourselves, such as mildly adjusting our diets. The negative aspects of doing so are negligible compared to the benefits for our health and our planet.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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