Feature Report: Food, Energy and Climate

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Greenhouse Gases and the French Dinner Plate

Food is a universal social concern. In many poor countries, the primary aim is to satisfy the population’s basic needs. In the developed world, the focus is often on how to make healthier, lower calorie meals, in order to combat obesity and cardiovascular diseases. Measuring the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of a dinner plate may be more difficult than calculating the GHG content of other products, but it’s an important factor in the fight against global warming.

Food items – whether plant, meat or highly processed products – have different impacts on CO2 emissions. ©Thinkstock

Assessing the greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... footprint of a consumer’s dinner plate can only be done within the context of a country or region due to the fact that consumption habits and food supply systems vary widely – not just from China to Africa, but even from the United States to Europe. Moreover, it’s difficult to establish an accurate estimate, given the number and complexity of operations along the food chain, or “from the field to the plate”, as the expression goes. 

In France, agriculture in the broadest sense accounts for 19% of the country’s total GHG emissions, according to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME). Based on a life cycle approach, however, the agricultural production phase accounts for only 50% to 70% of all food-related GHG emissions1.

Around 30%: Food’s contribution to total GHG emissions in France, with the agricultural phase accounting for only 19%.

Life Cycle Analysis

A life cycle analysis (life cycle assessment (lca) A standardized method used to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts of a product...) of an agricultural product not only evaluates its land-use emissions (See Close-Up: “The Impact of Food on Global Warming”), but also includes the emissions associated with its processing, packaging, shipping and distribution, as well as those stemming from our personal consumption habits. LCA is a tool for assessing the environmental impactAny change to the environment, whether adverse or beneficial, wholly or partially resulting from human activity... of a product throughout its entire life. It is used across a wide range of industries, from housing to cars. An assessment is subject to many uncertainties. For example, an eggplant grown in Holland during the winter is necessarily cultivated in a heated greenhouse, but the analysis won’t be the same if the fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... source is a renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... or a fossil fuel. If the sugar on our table comes from a deforested area, we need to double its emissions (provided that the information is available). And finally, if the fresh fruits and vegetables we buy aren’t in season and are shipped from afar, they generate as much GHG as locally produced meat. 

This approach, which is already complex, doesn’t take into account the emissions produced by the consumer. These vary, depending on such factors as the number of kilometers traveled to reach the shop or supermarket, the type of refrigerator or freezer used to store the product, the amount of food that is thrown out and individual recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. practices. An astonishing discovery has been made: boiling a large pot of water to cook a handful of spaghetti produces more co2See Carbon Dioxid than the GHG emitted to produce the flour, make the pasta, package it and ship it.

Short food supply chains – which have only one intermediary between the producer and the consumer – are often considered to be more energy efficient and less polluting. LCAs can produce some surprising results, however. In particular, the cost of fuel to transport a kilogram of food is higher for small  farmers’ markets. This is because products are sold in small quantities and distributed by many vehicles. Supermarkets, on the other hand, receive large shipments transported by high-capacity vehicles.

Many organizations are carrying out research on the carbon footprintThe carbon footprint (also known as greenhouse gas inventory) of a good or service measures the impact human activities have on the environment ... of food and have developed calculators that consumers can use to evaluate the GHG footprint of their dinner plates. In France, ADEME conducted a project on food-related GHG emissions called FoodGES2.

Boiling a large pot of water to cook a handful of spaghetti emits more CO2 than producing the flour, making the pasta and selling it.

Meat, Fish, Fresh Vegetables and Ready-Made Dishes

These different studies have led to a number of general findings. A summary report published by Manicore, a website recognized for the quality of its content, provides a set of generally accepted guidelines3:

  • Owing to its long processing and production chain, meat generates the highest GHG emissions. Veal has the biggest carbon footprint, followed by beef, lamb, pork and poultry.
  • Milk emissions are low. They increase rapidly as the processing process becomes more elaborate, as in the production of yogurt, butter, soft cheese and hard cheese.
  • Bread, pasta and rice have slightly higher emissions than fruits and vegetables (except exotic species). 

Ready-made meals, frozen dishes and highly processed products packaged in extremely small quantities naturally produce a high level of emissions since they require multiple, complex operations, compared to raw products or products distributed in bulk form. 

It’s also necessary to take look at product consumption in terms of weight. According to Manicore, at the end of one year, fruit and vegetables in the sample household accounted for most of the emissions since their overall weight consumed was much higher than that of meat – hence more emissions.

How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Growing awareness of the impact of food on GHG emissions – coupled with health concerns and the excesses of the food industry – have led to more or less radical campaigns in the developed world.

Without going so far as to suggest that everyone become vegan (refusing to eat animal products) many organizations recommend eating less meat and more seasonal fruits and vegetables, eating local products as much as possible and limiting consumption of ready-prepared meals and frozen dishes4.

 

Sources:

(1) Read ADEME’s summary report (in French only)

(2) ADEME - FoodGES (in French only)

(3) Manicore – Combien de gaz à effet de serre chez moi? (in French only)

(4) ADEME – “Manger mieux, gaspiller moins” (in French only)