When discussing about climate change and global warming in particular, carbon footprint is a term that we come across with often. Just like the physical footprint of a person, the carbon footprint is also unique to individuals; some may have a higher carbon footprint and some may not. 

What is carbon footprint?

Before everything, it is better to comprehend what does it mean ‘carbon footprint’ and how does it work. Carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an individual, event, organsation, service, place or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) Greenhouse gases, including the carbon-containing gases carbon dioxide and methane, can be emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, land clearance and the production and consumption of food, manufactured goods, materials, wood, roads, buildings, transportation and other services.

Food industry and the carbon footprint

Carbon footprint of activities like burning of fossil fuels, land clearance and transportation is always discussed, stressed and taken into consideration, and necessary measures to reduce are also taken by both organisations and individuals. Nevertheless, the carbon footprint of food has not received much attention attention and is deliberately ignored by the majority. Yet, researches prove that the food industry-from production to consumption-emits more than quarter of the total global greenhouse gas emission, which is equal to 26 per cent of the total. Also, food contributes 10-30 per cent of a household’s carbon footprint, mainly attributed to agricultural practices like food production and transportation. Ergo, the seriousness of food carbon footprint can never be dismissed by any means.

Going vegan reduces global warming?

Having discussed above, it is clear that the food industry does have an impact on the carbon footprint and ergo on the global warming. But, do all types of food contribute to the greenhouse effect in the same degree or does the impact differ? The answer is certainly yes. The studies have indicated that the carbon footprint of various food items vary at a huge scale. It basically depends on the time duration it takes for the production of that food, the biological emission of the greenhouse gasses of the plants or the animals, use of fossil fuels in facilitating the food production and so forth. However, the researchers have shown that meat products have larger carbon footprints than plant products like vegetables and grains due to inefficient conversion of plant energy to animals, and the release of methane from manure. In a 2014 study by Scarborough et al., the real-life diets of British people were surveyed and their dietary greenhouse gas footprints estimated. Average dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day (in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent) were:

-7.19 for high meat-eaters

-5.63 for medium meat-eaters

-4.67 for low meat-eaters

-3.91 for fish-eaters

-3.81 for vegetarians

-2.89 for vegans

So, according to above statistics, it is evident that consuming animal products can cause higher carbon footprint than that of plant products. Thus, going vegan could actually reduce the carbon footprint of a person. But at the same time, it should be noted that some non-animal based foods such as chocolates also have a very high carbon footprint because it has a very long process in production which consumes much energy. Also, the carbon footprint of a food can vary according to the context in which it is produced. Ergo the same food can have huge differences in environmental impact. For an instance, beef cattle raised on deforested land is responsible for 12 times more greenhouse gas emissions than cows reared on natural pastures and the tomatoes  grown outdoors or in high-tech greenhouses have a lesser carbon footprint than of those grown in greenhouses heated by gas or oil.

Synonymously the distances between the producer and the consumer of a food product also affects the carbon footprint because sometimes, the carbon footprint of a food can be heavily increased, even though its carbon footprint at the end of the production is low, when transported to longer distances. Especially, when fruits and vegetables are exported overseas, the carbon footprint rapidly heightens as the fossil fuel consumption is high in both sea and air transportation methods. Hence, consuming local food also helps to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

By Induwara Athapattu