Food footprints

The food we eat in today’s world is becoming ever more processed, increasingly packaged, and is coming from further away. Kiwi fruit from New Zealand, dates from Israel, tomatoes and avocados from Spain. We drive to the shops in our cars to buy trolleys of food wrapped in plastic and nestled on polystyrene trays. But do we stop to think what impact our food choices are having on the earth? More and more people are beginning to question where their food comes from, what chemicals were used and how far it has travelled. Choosing locally produced, organic and seasonal food can significantly reduce your carbon footprint.

 Your dinner plate’s carbon footprint

The single biggest factor in determining how ‘green’ your plate is the type of food you eat and how it’s produced. Forty percent of your dinner’s carbon footprint depends on this. The food miles on your plate account for 25% of the total emissions in your meal. Cooking contributes 29%, packaging is responsible for 5% and emissions associated with food disposal and retail are just 3 percent each. 

Go Organic 

Organic farming releases less greenhouse gases than non-organic farming – here are a few interesting facts:

  • Intensive agriculture needs ten calories of energy to produce one calorie of food
  • Globally the production and use of artificial fertilisers are the largest single source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more damaging than carbon dioxide
  • To make one tonne of artificial fertiliser takes 108 tonnes of water, emits 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and uses one tonne of oil
  • Globally, agriculture is responsible for between 17 – 32% of the world’s total greenhouse gases
  • Organic farming typically uses 26% less energy to produce the same amount of food as non-organic farming.

Go Local 

Food miles are a way of attempting to measure how far food has travelled before it reaches the consumer. It is a good way of looking at the environmental impact of foods and their ingredients. It includes getting foods to you, but also getting waste foods away from you, and to the landfill! We should all think about where our food has come from and what environmental effects this has had. This is a really great tool – a food miles calculator: Enter in the food you’ve bought, where is comes from and find out what its carbon footprint it.

However, don’t forget about the food miles you create when driving to the shops. A recent US study has found that consumers, in their travel to and from the supermarket accounts for 71% of the total food miles!

Go vegetarian

A recent UN report found that meat production was among the top 3 creators of greenhouse gases (including methane which is 23 times more harmful than CO2). It’s responsible for 18% of global emissions, more than the entire world transportation industry, and livestock agriculture is also a major cause of deforestation and soil erosion, as well as being a huge drain on our water supplies.

Red meat emits 11 grams of CO2 equivalent per calorie while fish emits 8 grams. Dairy has 6.5 grams, poultry is 6 grams with vegetables emitting about the same as poultry. Fruits, grains and vegetables are in the 3-4 grams CO2e per calorie range.

Around 40% of the world’s grain goes towards feeding animals and farming animals is extremely water intensive, taking 15,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef alone, compared with between 400-3000 litres for cereal crops.

Why not join the Meat-Free Monday campaign. Cities, restaurants and families across South Africa are committing to have a meat-free day once per week.

What you can do

  • Start a small vegetable/herb garden
  • Walk/Cycle to the shops
  • Eat food that is locally produced and in season
  • Commit to having one meat-free day each week.
  • Watch the excellent documentary called Dirt!

 More information:


2 responses to “Food footprints

  1. You have mentioned buying local food, but not shopping locally, which can have a greater effect on the carbon cost of your meal. so walking/bus/cycling to the shop may make more of a difference than what you buy there.

    there are also other reasons to shop locally

  2. It is hard to buy ‘local’ in South Africa. At best, it is labelled produced in South Africa, but not Where in SA! For us in Cape Town, food from Jo’burg isn’t really ‘local’.

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