As awareness grows for the need to adopt sustainable food practices, so your food's carbon footprint is an important part of that consideration.
We review three of the main reasons why your food has a carbon footprint in the first place, as well as suggestions for reducing it.
Unfortunately for your food, the farming industry is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world today.
As of 2016, agriculture contributed 9% of the carbon emissions in the United States according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Globally this figure was closer to 13%, or 6 billion tonnes, of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2011 and is predicted to rise by a further 1 billion tonnes by 2030.
One of the main reasons for this large footprint is the food sector consumes 10% of the annual total energy for the United States thanks to equipment, lighting, transportation. In fact 21% of the energy used in food production is tied to simply growing crops. This energy is often delivered to farms and their distributors in the form of petroleum- or natural-gas based solutions, all of which contribute significantly to the United State's carbon dioxide emissions.
Outside of carbon dioxide, one third of these emissions in the United States came from methane, which is 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide over the short-term. The gas is emitted by farming ruminant livestock such as cattle, sheeps and goats as a bi-product of fermentation, which takes place in their stomachs.
In addition, around 5 million tonnes of nitrous oxide (30-40% of total atmospheric concentrations) is released each year through farming. This has resulted in the highest atmospheric concentrations of this gas for 800,000 years. The compound, released by soil fertilizers and animal manure, has a similar effect on the ozone layer as CFCs, which were banned after being linked to ozone depletion.
Long Haul Food Chain
While it's estimated that 83% of food's carbon footprint is tied to its production, the journey it takes to reach you also plays a role.
That's because on average, food in the United States travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate. This releases 10 times as much energy (primarily by burning fossil fuels for transport) back into the environment for every calorie in the food.
This has led many concerned consumers to question their "food miles," a term first coined in the United Kingdom in the 1990s.
Buying from local farms and only eating food that's in season can help reduce this problem while channeling money back into the local foodshed.
This is a result of significant quantities of produce being thrown away on the farm or further down the food chain by distributors. As this food starts to decompose, it releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Many retailers discard produce either for being cosmetically imperfect (so called "ugly" produce) or to make space in their aisles.
Freshness dates, an issue that causes problems for producers, retailers and consumers, also incentivize people to throw away food that's technically still fine to eat or drink. However this problem isn't just confined to farms.
Using every part of the vegetables and meat in cooking, for example, not ordering too much at restaurants or over-buying are all easy ways to curb food waste, greenhouse gas emissions and save money in the process!
Ultimately while there are many ways to curb food waste across the food system, some of the most impactful methods are tied to our consumer behavior.