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Food and the environment

Food can have a large Carbon dioxide imprint and environmental impact, here we will look at a few hard facts about certain foodstuffs.

Environmental tips

In UK, we throw away 30% of all food produced. That is around 8.3 million tonnes / year – most is wasted through the 7 main supermarkets and it is thought that around 4 million tonnes (29%) of this is still edible. If we stopped this waste, the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking one in four cars off the road.

For example, the biggest carrot farm in the UK supplies 10% of all carrots (290 tonnes per day). They supply them as whole, sliced and diced carrots but still waste 3,000 tonnes per year due to crazy requirements from supermarkets who will reject them for silly reasons:

  • the wrong size
  • the wrong shape
  • blemishes
  • broken

UK farmers are struggling

50% of British farms are losing money – we need to return to basics and take all produce. It is the classic chicken and egg problem – supermarkets blame customers for wanting perfect product, customers and farmers blame supermarkets for demanding perfect product to give a commercial edge over competition.

Some Supermarkets will cancel orders at the last minute without any compensation to the farmer – not only is the farmer out of pocket but food already harvested for the order goes to waste, often being ploughed back into the ground.

Supermarkets claim that a lot of the surplus food goes to anaerobic digestion plants (to produce low cost, low carbon renewable energy) however a good proportion of this produce is still perfectly OK for human consumption.

To help reduce this food waste there is now a trend called ‘Skip diving’. This is finding food in supermarket bins late at night and using it to feed yourself or provide food for restaurants / cafes. This was pioneered by a not-for-profit café in Bristol called ‘Skipchen’.

‘Skip diving’ helps reduce food waste – but be careful, supermarkets often deliberately contaminate this food.

Carrier bags

Take your own carrier bags

This helps reduce plastic pollution (85% fewer single use bags in the UK since the introduction of the charge) and save yourself 10p per bag.

Take reusable bags with you every time you go shopping.

Eat less meat

We only need to eat meat 2/3 times per week, a more vegetarian diet is good for your health, your pocket and the environment.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, globally the livestock industry contributes around 14.5% of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, that’s a staggering 7.1 billion tonnes of CO₂e.

Buy local produce

Buy from local suppliers such as farmers, farmers markets or a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Co-op to find bargains and quality food. This will also help reduce food miles.

Buy products with minimal packaging

Try to pick items with minimal or no packaging to help reduce the world packaging / plastic pollution problem. Check to see if packaging is made from recycled and/or recyclable material.

Avoid purchasing pre-prepared frozen meals

Cook your own meals at home, try and avoid pre-prepared frozen equivalents. Cooking using fresh ingredients means you know exactly what is going into your food, and, if you’re diligent about sourcing, where it came from. This option cuts out steps of the food’s lifecycle (and the associated energy in processing and transportation that comes from each step). It can also be a healthier and cheaper option.

Reuse or recycle packaging

Try and reuse whatever packaging you can, such as glass jars or bottles. Anything that is recyclable, put it in the appropriate bin or take it to your local re-cycling centre.

Compost inedible leftovers

If you have inedible leftovers, peelings, food scraps or even cardboard they can all be composted either at home or you can give them to local organisations who will gladly accept them to turn them into compost.

Recycle used cooking oil

Used cooking oil, when cool, should be poured into a sealed plastic bottle and taken to your nearest household waste centre for recycling. Check with your local council for details. Do NOT pour it down the sink.

Semi solid fats and oils

Unfortunately, semi solid fat (wrapped in kitchen towel), or small amounts of used, cooled cooking oil soaked up in newspaper will have to go in your landfill bin (or food waste bin if permitted in your area).

Transporting food

The food system accounts for up to 40% of all UK road freight trips. This is a lot of fuel dumping huge volumes of CO₂e into the atmosphere. It is more important than ever that we reduce miles from farm to table to fight the climate change battle.

Exotic fruits

Exotic fruits such as organic grapes from Peru might taste good in the dead of winter, but consider the pollution caused by flying them to wherever you are. Choose something grown close to home and buy local foods if possible.


According to Tesco:

  • A pint of skimmed milk has a carbon footprint of 716 grams – 71.5% of Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are produced during production; 9.2% during processing; 14.4% in distribution and retail; and 4.9% during use and end of life.
  • A pint of semi-skimmed milk has a carbon footprint of 789g – 73.1% during production; 9.4% in processing; 13.1% during distribution and retail; and 4.4% at use and end of life.
  • A pint of whole milk has a carbon footprint of 916 grams – 75.2% during production; 9.7% in processing; 11.2% in distribution and retail; and 3.8% during use and end of life.
  • Milk has such a high carbon dioxide imprint because cows use up a lot of energy keeping warm and moving around rather than making milk and beef.
  • They also produce a lot of methane (CH₄), a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • The plant diet of cows is high in cellulose, which cannot be digested by the cow itself. However, they have a symbiotic relationship with colonies of microorganisms, called methanogens, which live in their gut and break down the cellulose into carbohydrates. These carbohydrates provide both the microbial community and the cow with an energy source. Methane is produced as a by-product of this process.
  • A dairy cow belches around 600 litres of methane a day. In a year that is enough energy to drive an average car for 2,000 miles. From ONE cow.

To help reduce the Greenhouse Gases buy local milk in re-used glass bottles, this is better than buying milk that has travelled a long way in a plastic bottle.

Carbon footprint of various foods

The following comes from The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners Lee.


  • 600g CO₂ per kilo grown in season in your own country.
  • 7.2kg CO₂ per kilo grown out of season and flown in.

Carrots (1kg)

  • 0.25kg CO₂ locally grown in season in your own country.
  • 0.3kg CO₂ average, grown in your country at any time.
  • 1kg CO₂ shipped in from abroad, baby carrots.
  • Try and favour locally grown mis-shapen specimens to help avoid wastage.

Beer (1 pint)

  • 300g CO₂ locally brewed cask ale at the pub.
  • 500g CO₂ local bottled beer from a shop, or a pint of imported beer in the pub.
  • 900g CO₂ bottled beer in a shop, transported long distance (the extra weight of the bottle increases the CO₂ imprint).
  • For home consumption, cans are better than bottles as long as you recycle them. 

A bowl of porridge

  • 82g CO₂ traditional Scottish porridge, made with water.
  • 300g CO₂ made with half milk, half water.
  • 550g CO₂ made with full milk and sweetened.

An ice cream

  • 50g CO₂ imprint from a 60g ice lolly from the supermarket, eaten on the day of purchase.
  • 500g CO₂ imprint from a big dairy ice cream from a van.
Importing strawberries produces 7.2kg CO₂ per kilo.
A locally brewed cask ale produces 1/3 of the CO₂ of an imported bottled beer.

Water used to produce food items

Below are just some of the everyday items we consume and how much water they use during production:

  • A slice of white bread – 40 litres
  • 1 pint of milk – 600 litres
  • A burger – 2,400 litres
  • 1kg of cheese – 5,000 litres
  • To make a barrel of beer (145 litres or 256 pints)) – 6800 litres
  • Regular Latte – 240 litres (includes sugar, distribution, plastic lid, sleeve and the cup itself
  • Individual bottles water – 8.5 litres (mainly to make the plastic bottle) – CRAZY

Whitbread Restaurant Group reduce Carbon emissions

Food waste specialist Biogen Greenfinch ran a trial with UK hotel and restaurant group Whitbread, which estimated that food waste made up a quarter of the waste stream from its restaurants.

Twelve outlets – mainly Whitbread’s Table Table brand – were chosen for the trial. Staff were trained to segregate food waste from the general waste stream, and the collected food waste was taken to an anaerobic digester for recycling.

​By the end of the trial, food waste from approximately 300 Whitbread outlets was diverted from landfill, saving over 3 million kilograms of carbon emissions.

Anaerobic digesters save huge volumes of carbon emissions.