What defines your food footprint?

By Will Nicholson, Founder, IntoFood

Food systems contribute at least 25% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (1), are major consumers of available water (2), major causes of deforestation (3) and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss (4), and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten (5). Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050 (6). I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

Which is why the One Planet Plate initiative by the SRA is so timely – shining light on recipes that contribute to the solution in different ways, through low carbon footprint, local sourcing, better meat, sustainable seafood or low waste. My company, IntoFood, has worked with the SRA on the low carbon footprint part of this, looking at a range of recipes that would have a lower (or higher) carbon footprint.

Just for transparency, this is roughly how we do it: we can take the best available research for production of different foods, allocate an estimate for the “post farm gate” impacts such as transport, processing and packaging, and then calculate the carbon footprint for a recipe, a menu or procurement. As a rule of thumb, animal products (meat, fish, dairy) sit on the higher end of the carbon footprint scale, and seasonal field-grown fruits and vegetables sit on the lower end. Unless the product is air-freighted, the transport impact normally plays second fiddle to the “on farm” impacts, so what we eat is (from a climate change perspective) more important than where exactly it has come from. That is not to say that the other important factors around locally sourced food should be ignored of course, but the ingredients in a recipe are what really matters for your carbon footprint.

So what did we learn from this process with One Planet Plate? Recipes that made vegetables the main focus had much lower carbon footprints, with notable examples being the garden beetroot terrine from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and the pumpkin and coconut olan curry from The Thali Café (note that the pumpkin curry is not heavily focused on local food, but it uses no animal products, pictured above). Interestingly the carbon footprint results for some recipes were higher than they could have been due to the inclusion of dairy products (for example, cheese can have a higher carbon footprint than chicken or pork, depending on how it is produced). And whilst of course recipes using more meat did have higher carbon footprint scores, if the meat has come from a farm with high animal welfare then this is in itself a step in the right direction. The goal really is for us to use “less but better” meat rather than trying to unrealistically remove meat from our diets, as well as celebrating local, buying sustainable seafood, eating healthier more plant-based meals, and cutting food waste.

Why does this combination matter? Because climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time, and it needs to be seen within the wider context of these other issues. Yes, we need to serve much more fruit and vegetables, less meat, fish and dairy, and avoid air-freighted food and unnecessary packaging. But we also need to focus on the quality of the meat, fish and dairy that we are using. Having a low carbon footprint is a good way of putting real numbers on what you are doing, especially if you combine it with high animal welfare, less waste and the use of certified sustainable produce.

Will Nicholson runs a company called IntoFood that integrates food sustainability into business practices for caterers, hotels and restaurants. Will also runs an online learning platform called The School of Sustainable Food Service, has a background as a chef and restaurant owner, and a Masters in Green Economy. You can find out more about IntoFood at www.intofood.no.


1. Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012) Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 37. p.195-222

2. www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/unwater_new/docs/water_for_food.pdf

3. Kissinger, G., et al. (2012) Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012

4. WWF (2015) Living Blue Planet Report

5. FAO (2014) Food waste footprint. Full cost accounting (www.fao.org/3/a-i3991e.pdf)

6. Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. (2012) World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO

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