When it comes to sustainability and protecting the environment, the food we eat matters. Food footprint or food’s carbon footprint refers to the production of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing of foods you eat. Statistics Canada states “The largest shares of GHG emissions were associated with crop production (45 per cent) and animal production industries (42 per cent), with a further 7 per cent attributed to food and beverage manufacturing, 3 per cent to farm product and food and beverage wholesale and retail trade, 1 per cent to food services and drinking places and 1 per cent to fishing, hunting and trapping.”
Sustainability in the many other industries, such as fashion and thrifting, is becoming mainstream but the food industry has yet to catch up.
Katherine Eckert, a PhD candidate in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition in the College of Social and Applied Health Sciences at the University of Guelph and a scholar at the Arrell Food Institute, has some tips to shrink your food footprint.
1. Go meatless one-day-a-week
Adding more plant-based foods can be an easy way to be sustainable with your diet. Plant-based foods produce less carbon emissions compared to animal-based foods. Eckert suggests trying to have one day a week where you eat no meat. Tyr swapping out meat for lentils or beans from common animal-based meals you enjoy as a way to start.
“Plant based foods are also good for your health, and often budget friendly,” Eckert . “They can also be a great way to support Canadian producers of plant-based proteins. Here in Canada, we grow peas, chickpeas, lentils and beans.”
Eckert emphasizes the importance of making food choices that are available to you and customize it to your needs.
“I’m not advocating that vegetarian diets are the only way to eat sustainably, but trying to add more plant-based foods to your diet can be a good way to try to increase sustainability,” Eckert said. “Making food choices that are available to you that support and preserve the health of the planet is what is important.”
2. For meat-eaters: opt for more meats with lower carbon emissions in your diet
Beef, prawns, lamb and goat release more methane and carbon dioxide than chicken, pork or plant-based alternatives, like lentils. Research states that for every kilogram of beef from non-dairy herds is 100 kilograms of CO2eq and Methane accounts for 49 per cent of its emissions. In comparison, the global mean emissions of chicken is 12 kilograms of CO2eq and 2 per cent of that accounting for Methane.
3. Eat local foods. Shop at farmer’s markets, where possible, and shop for in-season food in your area.
Eating foods that were produced closest to your home will reduce the need for the food to travel large distances from around the world. This will lessen carbon emissions that are released into the air. In Canada, “road transport used 85 per cent of the transport sector energy in Canada and accounted for 82 per cent of domestic transportation-related GHG emissions and nearly 20 per cent of total Canadian GHG emissions.”
“Choosing foods that are in season in your area and recognizing what foods are in season can help you choose more local food, especially the most sustainable choice,” Eckert said.
An added bonus to this suggestion is that it also helps support the local economy.
“Supporting local farmers, growers and producers and really developing a relationship with them, you’re more likely to find what’s in season at a farmer’s market and you can contribute to your local economy that way as well.”
4. Cook at home more often
Eckert says it’s all about balance and reducing the number of meals you order can give you better control of how sustainable the products in your meal are.
“Instead of buying takeout from a restaurant where you have less knowledge or control over what you’re eating and from where your food is sourced, you can gain more control over that by cooking at home,” Eckert said. “If you’re someone who eats out often, maybe trying to reduce by one meal a week at first and seeing how that goes.”
5. Reduce food waste by planning your meals
Food waste has a significant impact on climate change. According to Love Food Hate Waste Canada, 2.2 million tonnes of avoidable household food waste is equivalent to 9.8 million tonnes of CO2. Planning your meals ensures you only buy what you can eat before it spoils.
Additionally, reducing the amount of plastics in food packages, such as buying products in bulk, using reusable bags, or choosing environmentally friendly alternatives to zipper bags, is a small and important step to being sustainable.
“This is helpful for the environment and as well as your budget, so it can save you money as well if you’re not using all your foods and are throwing it out” Eckert said.
6. Use your leftovers more often
As humans, we often make mistakes. Sometimes, you end up with left over food. When that happens, try to find innovative ways to use leftovers from last night’s meal and be keep and eye on food in your fridge that is about to go bad so you can use them before they spoil. This requires a creative approach to being sustainable.
You can check out some recipes here.
“You can take leftovers to lunch the next day or share your leftovers with your family, friends, or neigbours once COVID is resolved,” Eckert said.
7. Choose imperfect produce
Many people when grocery shopping like to choose the most perfectly shaped fruits and veggies, and often leave the misshapen and bumpy produces. What tends to happen to these ‘ugly’ foods is they end up going to waste.
“This goes back to another way to reduce food waste,” Eckert said. “If your grocery store offers it, you can look for imperfect produce. It may be misshapen but it is still perfectly tasty and healthy to eat.”
8. Start a patio garden, a backyard garden or a community garden
Gardens have a multidimensional benefit for the environment. Growing your own food helps limit your reliance on major corporations, who often choose the most effective option and not the most sustainable option in their production. It gives you more control about what goes into your food, including nutrients, and it reduces the transportation involved. Ultimately, a personal garden has a food footprint of zero!
“You can share any overabundance from your garden among your neighbours and coworkers,” Eckert said.
9. Whenever possible avoid ultra-processed foods
Processed foods require many ingredients and food companies try to cut costs when it comes to products.
“Ultra-processed foods are products with an extensively long ingredient list, so it may be hard to tell what actual food or products it contains,” Eckert said. “Not everyone can avoid these foods … but if you have the option, choose foods that are less processed because it does take less energy and resources to produce fresh products.”
According to Chatham House, the production of ultra-processed foods contributes to contamination of rivers, deforestation and the destruction of animal habitats. Reducing the amount of ultra-processed food helps reduce the demand for them as well.
10. Support local butchers, meat suppliers or fish from local sustainable fisheries
Seafood has a smaller carbon footprint, as mentioned before, but certain fish are better than others. According to Oceana, small schooling fisheries, such as anchovies and herring, are the most sustainable. Additionally, seafood’s carbon footprint is impacted by fuel consumption, so it matters where the fish is sourced, along with what tools were used to catch seafood. Yale Climate Connections states: “Picking domestically or locally caught and processed seafood can be one of the best ways to combat the high fuel consumption resulting from foreign catch and processing.”
“Pastures are also great for encouraging biodiversity of the land,” Eckert said.
She suggests combining these tips to create a more cost-effective meal plan as locally sourced meats tend to be more costly; opting to include more vegetarian options into your diet will help balance the cost of locally sourced meats.
So as you can see, there are many options to reduce your food footprint. Eating sustainably is for everyone, vegetarian and meat-eaters alike. Whether you start with one tip from the list or do all 10, each action is step to a healthier you and a healthier planet.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.