Changing your eating habits is one very effective way that individuals can lower their carbon footprint. According to Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything’, the food we buy makes up around 20% of our carbon footprint. In the UK that’s 170 million tonnes of CO2e which is almost as much as we emit on household fuel and electricity put together!
So food habits can have a big impact, and buying habits as we know, can have a big impact on producers and suppliers. For three years Mike worked with supermarket chain Booths – a northern version of Waitrose – drilling down into the carbon impact of everything from farming to air freight, hothousing to packaging and came up with some really informative and sometimes unexpected results.
Here’s a distillation of his findings –
How to make a big impact on your food footprint in order of effectiveness
1. Eat what you buy – worth a 25% carbon saving for your average shopper – in the developed world we are thought to waste one quarter of all the edible food we buy! Think of all the energy that went into producing that food and getting it to your fridge or plate and devise some strategies for reducing what you throw away, saving money in the process. Some suggestions are: serve smaller portions or get people to serve themselves, check your fridge contents regularly and menu-plan, scrape the dishes clean, pick over the bones, make stock, soup, risotto, pilaf, pasta sauce or frittata with leftovers – there are some really good recipes online at
BBC Good Food https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/leftovers
Love Food Hate Waste https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/recipes
Bootstrap Cook Jack Monroe also has some great ideas https://cookingonabootstrap.com/
Henry Dimbleby of Leon also has some good suggestions https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/feb/21/how-to-cook-with-leftovers-henry-dimbleby
2. Eat less meat and dairy – you don’t have to go full vegan or vegetarian to make a big impact here! Sensible reductions are worth a 25% saving on a typical UK diet. Animals are inefficient converters of plant protein – they waste a lot of energy walking around and keeping warm – and in the case of cows and lambs, belching out methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Dairy is also an issue being produced by cows and sometimes sheep, but there are plenty of ways of reducing meat and dairy that don’t involve giving it up entirely. Get creative with dishes where meat can play a minor part for example pasta, pizza, curries, chillis, risottos, stir fries, etc. Bulk up on veg and reduce the meat so it’s more of a flavouring than a main player. Or you could try less popular cuts like faggots or haggis, ribs, chicken thighs or wings rather than breast, and kebabs with lots of veg between the meat. Vegetarian meat substitutes are also very good these days although they’re often made from soy which comes with its own issues of rainforest clearance. Try meat-free Mondays and then build up to going vegetarian during the week but omnivorous on weekends. Everyone knows what a special place food has in our psyches and habits are hard to change, but little by little we can wean ourselves over to a less carbon-intensive diet and enjoy it!
For inspirational vegetarian recipes check out Yotam Ottolenghi, Anna Jones, Jane Baxter and Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall plus loads more
3. Eat seasonally avoiding air freight and hot housing – could save 10% on the average UK diet
Eating locally produced seasonal food is wonderful but shipped food is also fine eg bananas, oranges etc. The big impacts come from air-freighted produce for example green beans from Kenya or Guatemala, or hot-housed UK produce eg tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers and lettuce grown in winter in heated UK greenhouses. If you need them out of season, better to buy them from a country like Spain whose polytunnels are heated by the sun all year round. The sooner these sorts of products are labelled in supermarkets the better! But in the meantime get to know what’s in season and when in the UK, if you don’t already, and then you can judge what looks like it’s been flown in or grown in artificial heat.
4. Steer clear of low yield varieties – a 3% saving on the average UK diet. Baby vegetables, baby leaf salads, even cherry tomatoes, take a lot of energy to grow and are harvested before their prime, making them more of a special treat than an everyday thing if you’re counting your carbon. A lot of them are airfreighted too so definitely special occasions only.
5. Avoid excessive packaging – worth 3-5% saving for the average shopper. This may sound counterintuitive but packaging plays a vital role in keeping food fresh from farm to fridge and only makes up around 6% of the impact of a typical food shop. Paper and card are often a more carbon-intensive option than plastic because they use more energy to make and they emit methane if they end up in landfill. Cotton tote bags are very high energy items due to the energy intensity involved in cotton production. But taking your own containers and bags shopping is a good way of reducing this as long as you’re not going out and buying new metal, glass and cotton receptacles to take with you – reusing old plastic bags, plastic containers and tupperwares is surely the best way to go. Making your own cotton bags out of old shirts or pillow cases is also a win-win!
6. Recycle your packaging – worth 2-3% Goes without saying for eco warriors. Worth understanding your local waste stream properly though and we recommend Less Waste Hitchin for all info on that. Watch out for compostable packaging products as there is no local waste stream for them as far as we know – they can’t go in your garden waste bin or your food waste bin. You can’t put them in recycling as they will contaminate the load, and if they end up in landfill they will emit methane on breaking down. Why retailers are going all out to produce them is a bit of a mystery given the lack of joined up thinking regarding disposal. They take about 3 years to decompose on a garden compost heap, more depending on how much they represent as a percentage of the mix.
7. Help the shop reduce waste – worth about 1% saving. Always take from the front of the shelf so stock can be rotated and doesn’t have to be wasted. Use the reduced price items when they’re available but don’t wait for them to be reduced.
8. Buy misshapen fruit and veg – worth about 1% saving. Buying wonky produce stimulates demand for the vast amounts of food that would otherwise get wasted simply because of its shape or appearance.
9. Practice low carbon cooking – worth up to a 5% carbon saving. There are several ways of cutting down carbon emissions when cooking: using a pan lid when boiling, making sure the flame only heats the bottom of the pan not the sides, boiling gently rather than furiously, turning off the gas when not using it, using a microwave where you can, reducing the use of your oven and grill.
All these savings put together amount to about 75% but some overlap so by following the above advice you’ll only be saving about 60% of your dietary carbon emissions – pretty good result though even so!
If you want to know more about the carbon footprint of everything we strongly recommend getting hold of a copy of ‘How Bad are Bananas’ by Mike Berners-Lee – available from all good bookshops and some that don’t pay their taxes.