Unpacking the Carbon Footprint of What We Eat

What’s the origin story of your favourite meal? From farm to table, we take a closer look at the carbon footprint of what we eat.
Posted on
September 1, 2022
Unpacking the Carbon Footprint of What We Eat

What you eat matters. And not just from a health POV. 

We look at a burger and fries and see something delicious, ready to consume. But what most of us don’t give a lot of thought to is the environmental impact of what it took to grew, harvest, produce and transport 

Why is food a major contributor to our carbon footprint?

Let’s take a closer look at the origin story of the humble hamburger with a side of fries. 

It’s the potatoes in the ground that became those fries, the all-beef patty, the wheat grown for the bun, the sesame seeds imported from somewhere, and everything in between that all have a ripple effect.

Food’s carbon footprint—also called a foodprint—includes the greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with every facet of food production. It all counts, from seed to compost: growing, farming, marketing, transporting, storing, cooking and, yes, even disposing.

And the wake from those ripples goes a lot further than you might think.

The food supply chain is responsible for about a quarter of all worldwide GHG emissions.
Cauliflower, a vegan-friendly staple, growing in a patch
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

What contributes to the carbon footprint of food? 

There are a lot of factors, but three major ones stand out: animal agriculture, transportation, and food waste.

1. The impact of animal agriculture 

Think of agriculture in farm-to-table terms. Unless you know the lady next door with the chickens or cows, the journey isn’t as direct as it sounds. A piglet born in a barn is one thing, but the resources needed to turn it into your bacon sandwich are where the effects start to accumulate.

We’re talking about things like growing the food to feed that animal (both because of land use and because of fertilizers), the electricity that powers its home, the water it drinks, the manure it leaves behind, and the actual carbon emissions of said little piggy and its trip to market.

It’s maintaining an office to work on marketing and a factory for manufacturing. It’s the trucks, planes and ships that transport the processed product to the shelves of the store that you drove to. It’s the plastic packaging around those slices of bacon. It’s the power needed to preserve the food in your fridge and the gas your stove needs to cook it.

Read more: How can changing what you eat help fight climate change?

Food's carbon footprint is twofold: the resources used to produce it, and the way it decays.

2. The carbon footprint of transporting food

Eating local has many benefits, but climate-wise, it doesn’t make as much of a difference as most people think.

On average, your food’s trek to the store only counts for about 6 percent of its overall carbon footprint.

The exception is foods that rack up frequent flyer miles, which have a massive carbon footprint—about 50 times that of travelling by sea. Foods transported by air are not always easy to identify, but it’s usually things that are highly perishable and out of season, like fresh raspberries in January.)

3. Food waste's carbon footprint

And then there’s food waste, whose carbon footprint is twofold: the resources used to produce it, and the way it decays. And this isn’t small change—food loss and waste represents 8 percent of the world’s GHG emissions.

Read more: How does food waste contribute to climate change?

Five Jersey cows grazing a pasture, symbolizing the impact of animal agriculture on climate change.
Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

How can we reduce our carbon footprint?

Now that you’ve deep-dived food’s exhaustive journey to your crisper drawer, throwing stuff out hits a bit differently.

Read more: 6 ways to reduce food waste at home

Food waste is pretty easy to conquer, and has an almost-instant carbon footprint reduction: Wasting less means buying less.

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Amy Valm
Written By
Amy Valm

Amy Valm is a writer and editor who probably makes the same jokes as your dad. She has been a pretty big fan of the planet since the '80s.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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