Food is more about “what you choose” than “where you get it from”.
Are you ever surprised when you buy a banana from the Philippines or see avocados labeled as coming from Mexico? It is not uncommon for familiar foods to be produced on the other side of the world and shipped to Japan. When we realize this, our concern is the impact on the global environment during transportation. Doesn’t the fact that food is exported and imported from distant countries increase carbon dioxide emissions and promote global warming?
If you are interested in sustainability and the global environment, you are probably concerned about the carbon footprint of your food. Indeed, a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. It is no surprise then that there is a growing awareness that our diet and food choices significantly impact the global environment. Consuming “locally” is a matter recommended by many credible sources, including the United Nations. While it makes intuitive sense, it is actually a potentially misleading piece of advice.
The reason is that our carbon footprint has a greater impact on the environment because of what we choose to eat rather than where it comes from. While “local production for local consumption” is a common recommendation for reducing the carbon footprint of our diets, transportation accounts for only a small percentage of our greenhouse gas emissions, and where it comes from is not nearly as important as our consumer food choices.
According to data from “Our Word in Data,” carbon dioxide emissions are attributable to “land-use change” and “agricultural” processes for most foods. Together, these two emissions account for more than 80% of the footprint of most foods. Green gas emissions vary widely from food to food; for example, the production of 1 kg of beef releases 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalent). In comparison, beans emit only 1 kg per kg.
Overall, animal products have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods. Lamb and cheese both emit the equivalent of more than 20 kg of CO2 per kg. The production of chicken and pork meat emits less CO2 but is still higher than most plant-based foods, each emitting 6 kg to 7 kg CO2.
If you want to reduce your diet’s carbon footprint, you can certainly reduce your emissions, albeit slightly, by consuming food produced in the area. In particular, airfreighted foods should be avoided. Food transported by air accounts for only 0.16% of the total transport distance but emits 50 times more CO2 than transported by ship. And to make an even more significant difference, we must focus on our “food choices. Reducing our meat and dairy intake or switching from beef to chicken, pork, or plant-based alternatives will significantly reduce our carbon footprint.