Climate-friendly Food on the Menu
At the end of 2009 the eyes of the world were on Copenhagen, Denmark, where world leaders met as part of COP15, the 15th Conference of the Parties within the UN’s framework convention on climate change. Through discussions, the aim of this meeting was to ultimately reach an agreement on ways to curb carbon emissions that cause climate change. COP15 was expected to be a major milestone in reaching a legally binding agreement to curb carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, it fell far short of these expectations.
However, European countries have already committed to reducing their carbon footprint by at least 20% by the year 2020. As a consequence, all areas of activity – and not only the more obvious ones such as the energy and transport sectors – have to reduce their carbon footprint. This includes the agricultural and food sectors. (And of course all of us as individuals need to do our bit as well).
At the public debates and presentations given during COP15, there was a growing discussion about food and climate change. Whilst most people already associate air travel with carbon emissions, few of us readily think about the carbon footprint of the foods we eat. In fact, it was claimed at these talks in Copenhagen, that agriculture and food production account for more carbon emissions than all the transport sectors put together. An example of how such a high figure can be arrived at was given through the case of soya beans being grown in South America to provide fodder for the pig industry in Denmark. Clearing land to grow these beans results in deforestation which in turns has an impact on carbon emissions. The beans get transported back to Europe to feed the pigs, either by air or sea, accruing many food miles on the way and emitting more carbon dioxide.
In terms of the food miles debate, many food producers and product manufacturers are now starting to think about how to address consumers’ questions regarding carbon footprint. One idea is for "climate-labelling" where the C02 load for a product is stated on the packaging. But how this is realistically measured – and is a robust enough, meaningful indication to incorporate any sudden changes in the supply chain, such as different raw materials’ sourcing – was a hotly debated topic at the public talks during COP15.
One way to try and measure the carbon footprint of a product is to undertake what is called a 'Life Cycle Analysis', where all the inputs during the product’s life are considered. This can be a costly process and requires lots of detailed information along the supply chain, but does exist already for some products.
There are many examples of initiatives already in place to try and raise awareness of our carbon footprint and ultimately reduce it. One such initiative, following the principles of eating in a more "climate-friendly" way, is to be found at an institution, incidentally, very close to the heart of the COP15 talks. The European Environment Agency (EEA), an EU institution based in the centre of Copenhagen, has for a few months now, been trialling a "climate-friendly menu" in its staff canteen. Following guidelines for selecting foods that follow climate-friendly principles, staff and visitors can enjoy a lunch and learn at the same time about the C02 saving over other choices. The principles followed on the menus include: eating more locally grown or reared produce, particularly outdoor-grown fresh fruit and vegetables in season; eating less meat, particularly beef and lamb; eating potatoes instead of rice; reducing food wastage; choosing socially-responsibly produced products; and cooking more energy-efficiently in the kitchen, such as using a stove-top instead of an oven and putting lids on pots. It is cited here that 25-30% of all C02 emissions stem from the production, transport, cooking and consumption of food, so choosing climate-friendly foods should go someway towards reducing this.
Last year, a national authority became the first to develop guidelines for climate-friendly food choices, recommending citizens to reduce their meat and rice consumption as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These guidelines were developed in Sweden and sent out to other EU countries for reactions and response. (According to EEA advice there are some public institutions in the UK who have also already adopted climate-friendly menus – perhaps you know of one?)
However on a final note, whilst, according to the EEA, agriculture puts most pressure on the environment during the food chain life cycle, with beef and dairy productions causing the highest emissions, food processing is not seen as a significant contributor.