This is one of the ‘hot topics’ in the environmental world. What are the emissions from your diet, what are the worst offenders, and what should we really be avoiding? The meat and dairy industries have really been in the spotlight with their high production emissions, but let’s take a look at the good, bad and the ugly.

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The common Food Pyramid vs the Environmental Pyramid
Courtesy of Wiley Nutrition Bytes

One of the key things to think about is not just the emissions associated with the growing and production of food items, but the air miles. The difference between food grown in your city, country, continent or internationally can have a massive impact on the carbon footprint of your food!

Thinking about eating locally and seasonally cuts large food miles which your produce has to travel to get to your plate. In the 21st century it is possible to get almost any fruit or vegetable, at any point in the calendar year, from any country – but this is not how it used to be.

Food Miles

Technological advancements have allowed for faster and cheaper travel which in turn results in faster and cheaper trading, exporting and importing. Fruit and vegetables which would otherwise perish travelling long distances in unsuitable conditions have the ability to be preserved and transported for the benefit of people all over the globe.

It is also important to note that foods which might be environmental to eat in one country differs dramatically to another because of these food miles!

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A global ‘food map’ of some of the UK’s biggest food imports.
Courtesy of Jane Illustration


Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Meat. Numerous graphs and statistics have dominated the conversation with how CO2intensive this food group is, and it’s true. The emissions from the livestock, the production of the meat, and the production of the food the livestock eats, means that emissions sky rocket compared to basic seasonal fruit and vegetables.

Diets are undoubtedly changing, and more and more people are picking up vegetarian and vegan lifestyles to combat this, and this is surely something that is a good thing. Cutting out some meat from your diet can bring some major benefits from the subsequent increase in beans, pulses, lentils and vegetables which are being substituted in.

If you’re thinking this is something you could do, it’s good to know the main offenders. In order of most emissions to least here are your main meat options; beef, lamb, pork and then poultry. If this is something you don’t think you can switch right now, there are still steps to limit your meat emissions! Picking as local as possible and investigating organic farms which might feed their livestock with less impactful feed stocks! And of course, trying to get it in a reusable tub to avoid packaging. 

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Some delicious vegan meals I have swapped in while out for meals

Animal Products

Second to meat is subsequent animal products; your dairy, eggs and miscellaneous. Cattle are one of the most CO2intensive animals to rear and this translates into dairy products being highly CO2intensive too. Thinking about your consumption of these too will drastically reduce your CO2emissions from your food consumption. You do however have to be careful when switching from these to make sure your alternative options are better for the environment. Many dairy swaps are based on soy and nuts, which have some serious environmental degradation attached to them. Ripping up tropical land to farm these and contributing to droughts are some of the main consequences, and of course these are not grown close to many of the places with consume these.

A top tip for switching would be looking at alternatives which are grown and made near you; oat milk is one of the best options in the UK – and you can even make your own! The cheese story is one of the harder ones. I think because it is such a loved item it is hard to replace and it’s the hardest to get a match for. Most of the time I have avoided these, being picky with my taste and ultimately not buying plastic means that it’s not something I’ve investigated thoroughly. The same messages apply when thinking about what you CAN do to limit the environmental impact, if you do still buy these, again you have the local aspect, and limiting packaging, working out where you can buy loose or take your own tub!

Simple steps to reduce carbon emissions from dairy products; buy avoiding plastic and pointless packaging, and source from local areas; milk in glass bottles from a dairy 5 miles away, and Scottish cheeses wrapped in paper

After meat and dairy, it seems sensible to look at their protein substitutes, primarily the dominating soy-based range. Meat free diets can often rely on a heavily imported diet which is what brings the large carbon emissions from these foods with their food miles, and of course the precious tropical regions they are grown in.

In the WWF Food Climate report it was noted that:

“Some substitute crops required are currently only grown overseas (e.g. soy, chickpea, lentils). The land required for all these to replace beef and lamb is about 1,352 kilohectares, compared with about 135 kilohectares to supply concentrates for ruminant meat now. So, the substitution of beef and sheep meat with Quorn, tofu and pulses clearly demands more overseas land. Partly because major crops for substitution are low yielding (lentils and chickpeas at <= 1 t/ha). Were higher yielding pulses used, this demand would clearly be reduced.”

soy based foods vegan food protein alternatives zero waste shop glasgow society zero
The common soy-based food products.
Courtesy of Speaking Tree

So, this means that in terms of the amount of land needed, meat substitutes would use about 10 times more land than actual livestock because of the low intensity of some of the major crops, meaning that more land overseas would need to be converted to grow meat substitutes and this risks losing more tropical rainforests. 

However, the report does seem to conclude that, even knowing that meat substitutes such as tofu and Quorn are a less efficient option than lentils and chickpeas, it is still worth pursuing a meat-free diet if emissions reductions are our goal:

“Diet provides single [emissions reduction] measures with big effects…The benefit of a vegetarian diet decreases about 38% of emissions when land use change emissions are included, but this excludes the loss of soil carbon if UK grassland was converted to arable cropping. Our analysis of the effects of the production of substitutes leads to the conclusion that a broad reduction in livestock product consumption balanced by broad-based increases in crop product intake [such as lentils and chick peas] is a more feasible measure avoiding the land use burden associated with soy-based livestock products.”

This is really important because firstly it highlights that there really isn’t one true diet which trumps the rest, but there are different aspects to think about. The foods with low emissions might be very water-intensive or grown in far-flung places, or foods grown organic and locally might have high CO2emissions.

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Lentils, beans, chickpeas and pulses – the sustainable meat alternatives.
Courtesy of Organic Lifestyle Magazine

Fruits and Vegetables

Moving onto fruits and vegetables can be a bit trickier because of the vast variety we are faced with. We know that eating what is local and seasonal can largely reduce the food miles, so that is a good place to start. Second to that thinking about agricultural practices and standards is another step in the right direction.

Farmers which use appropriate or minimal fertiliser, pesticide and ploughing and tillage reduce the harm to the natural surrounding environment, decrease the pollution rates, and increase soil health and subsequent carbon sequestration which reduces Co2 emissions. This is important because many countries have strict agricultural regulations which ensure these benefits, and primarily organic is the best for this.

Organic farms have much higher environmental standards and practices which ensure the most sustainable and least intensive diet.

My weekly fruit and vegetable box, delivered by an electric van, and containing the best fresh local produce from a nearby organic farm!

A side note would be to consider some wonky veg, getting the delicious produce which look just a little bit different, saving so much waste and changing the beauty standards in supermarkets. This is saving waste and all of the subsequent emission which go along with this.

There are some veg box deliveries which specialise in these, and many which are super inclusive of all shapes and sizes! A little quick part about what is seasonal in the UK: 

Some delicious wonky veg! – great for making soups, sauces and salads!
Courtesy of The Independent

So, let’s have a recap; The Good – local and seasonal! The Bad – meat, dairy and high-food mile fruit and vegetables! So that leaves The Ugly…

The Ugly

Ugly foods in this case are the ones which might not necessarily have the biggest carbon footprint, but leave a bigger footprint on the environment overall. Major studies have been done looking at lots of individual crops and their subsequent impacts.

Almonds are one of the most degrading crops which are primarily grown in California which has been in drought for several decades, not helped by the high-water intensity of almonds. Bees are even being shipped across the United States to allow for full pollination of these crops. Avocados are another highly water intensive crop which are grown in tropical regions which often have water scarcity.

Many fish farms leach antibiotics and pesticides into ‘natural’ watercourses which effect large number of other species. Unsustainable palm oil is removing alarming rates of naturally diverse and precious rainforest in exchange creating damaging monocultures, and this is only to name a few.

However, one of the ugliest things of all, is that around half of all food produced globally is wasted. Be that thrown away after going off, not being purchased from a store, or not even making it to the store because of beauty standards. This is a massive waste of COand of valuable food which has been grown, produced, packaged and shipped to wherever it ends up.

Food Waste

One of the most impactful things you can do to reduce your food carbon footprint is to NEVER be wasteful of food. Meal plan, only buy what you need, learn what to do with certain foods that might be a bit past it, don’t be picky in the shops, and educate around portion control and meeting your daily food needs. Keep your eyes peeled for a blog coming soon about ways to reduce your food waste!

The main culprits in food waste!
Courtesy of The Guardian.

Finding foods that are actually the most beneficial to the land, or are the least degrading is important! An easy way to get a rough idea of environmental impact is by looking at where food has been grown, and equating air miles and the type of land it will have removed to be grown in.

Food grown local to you, especially in the UK/Scotland, will have much lower air miles, while using up land which is otherwise less biodiverse, compared to, for example, tropical regions. Then, if you wanted to do a little more research you could find out the intensity of the agriculture and the amount of land it takes up. This will indicate not only how much land is needed to grow this, but you can extrapolate up from that the machines needed and fuel, the pesticides and fertilisers used, and whether or not livestock require additional land to grow their feeds! 

There are so many simple steps which we can take to limit the carbon footprint of our plate. Whether you are reducing it from reducing your plastic and packaging use, buying organic, reducing your animal products, or sourcing your food locally, everyone can do their bit! 

Over this year I will be diving into all thing’s food related; what we eat and how that slots into our environmental lifestyles. So, keep your eyes peeled for more diet related blogs in the coming weeks!L

In preparation for the next food blog we want to see your best wonky veg! Use the #WONKYVEGSZ to share what you find, and some of the best will be featured!

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