climate change food

Local food and the sources of emissions

‘Food miles’ became a popular term a few years ago in environmental circles, with locally produced food proposed as a solution. Some campaigns still advocate the LOAF principles (Local, Organic, Animal-friendly and Fairtrade) as a summary of ethical eating. But focusing too much on where food is produced can miss much bigger sources of carbon emissions.

I’ve written about this before, and it bears repeating: where food comes from matters, but what we eat matters a whole lot more.

Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data recently published a detailed and clear explanation of the issue, and it’s nicely summed up in this accompanying graphic:

As the graph shows, transport is often a tiny sliver of the overall emissions from our food. It varies across different types of food, but it’s usually less than 10% of emissions. By contrast, the difference between the footprints of various foods is enormous.

Let’s take a practical example: you’re planning a sunday roast. Choosing local lamb over New Zealand lamb is pretty inconsequential from a climate change point of view, though you may have other reasons for choosing one or the other. If you decided on roast chicken or pork instead of lamb or beef, that’s a much more significant emissions saving. And if you got out a recipe for nut loaf, you’d be making the greenest food choice of them all.

What you choose to do with this information is, as always, entirely up to you. I doubt that anybody makes their food choices entirely based on carbon emissions. Preferences (and more importantly what the kids like and don’t like… ), prices, availability, nutrition and all sorts of other things weigh in on our meal planning. I think that makes it all the more important that the climate factor is as accurate as possible. If the climate is going to be one of many factors that people are balancing, let’s make sure that we’re working with good information, and that we know what will reduce emissions the most.

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