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What Does the Carbon Footprint of Food Consist of?

Saara Airaksinen

Saara Airaksinen

Copywriter

Emissions from raw materials play a significant role in determining the carbon footprint of edible food.

The carbon footprint of food encompasses various stages of production and consumption, where emissions are generated. This includes the production chains involved in raw materials and products, from primary production to processing, transportation, packaging, and consumer behavior.

Raw materials constitute the largest portion of a food product’s carbon footprint. In comparison, food production, packaging, and transportation have relatively lesser significance. Primary production, which includes the cultivation of raw materials, accounts for over half of food’s climate impact.

On average, primary production contributes to approximately 60% of emissions, while processing and storage contribute around 30%, and transport and trade contribute only about 10%.

The Length of the Food Chain for Raw Material Matters

Sustainable farming practices, efficient utilization of chemicals, and energy-efficient production inputs can help reduce emissions in food production. In general, however, the most effective approach to reducing the carbon footprint of food is to lower the consumption of animal products and prioritize plant-based alternatives.

As the food chain lengthens, the climate effects of raw materials increase. In primary production, the carbon footprint of meat is typically larger compared to that of grain and vegetables due to the need for feed production in animal raising.

Plant-based foods require less land, water, and resources, resulting in fewer emissions than animal-based foods. Notably, ruminants such as beef and sheep have a greater climate impact than pork or chicken due to the methane produced during their digestion, which is highly detrimental to the climate.

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Next, let’s dive into two commonly grown raw materials: meat and grain. Traditionally, these form the basis of the domestic diet and are prominently featured in recommended dietary guidelines.

Field

The Moderate Carbon Footprint of Grain

All grain products, in general, have a relatively low carbon footprint, usually below 1 kg CO2 eq/kg, making them climate-friendly. Rice is an exception, having a higher carbon footprint and greater water consumption during production. For instance, Finnish oats have an estimated carbon footprint up to 70% smaller than that of rice.

Factors Influencing Grain’s Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint of grain varies depending on cultivation methods and geographical areas. Employing sustainable farming practices like cover crops, no-till farming, and sustainable fertilizer usage can effectively reduce the carbon footprint.

Production inputs encompass all resources employed in the manufacturing process, encompassing fertilizers, seeds, fuels for field work, irrigation, and crop drying.

Organic production exerts its own positive impact on the climate by prioritizing self-sufficiency and reducing reliance on industrially produced nitrogen fertilizers. This approach curbs energy consumption during fertilizer production.

Soil plays a pivotal role by storing more organic carbon than vegetation, making it a crucial element in climate change mitigation. Proper soil management, including reduced plowing, cover crops, and diverse crop rotations, aids in carbon sequestration and ensures soil health.


The benefits of coal farming are significant for the climate – by utilizing coal farming methods, we can practically cancel most, if not all, of the emissions associated with barley farming.


Cow standing on a pasture

Animal Diet’s Influence on Meat’s Carbon Footprint:

The carbon footprint of meat is shaped by several factors:

  1. Animal Feed: Feed production significantly contributes to the carbon footprint of meat. As grain represents a widely utilized animal feed, its carbon footprint exhibits a close correlation with meat emissions. Production inputs encompass litter, water, and energy utilized for heating shelters. Animals like game and reindeer, requiring minimal heating, exhibit a smaller carbon footprint than beef.
  2. Length of the Food Chain: The carbon footprint of different animals is influenced by the length of the food chain.
    • Beef possesses a higher carbon footprint (36-46 kg CO2 eq/kg) compared to
    • pork (3.6-6.9) and
    • broiler chicken (2.8-4.0).
    • Longer rearing times and larger animal sizes contribute to higher emissions in pork production, while ruminants such as cattle and sheep produce methane during digestion, exacerbating their climate impact.
  3. Manure Systems: Emissions arising from manure handling and storage also contribute to the overall carbon footprint of animal production.

Comprehending the carbon footprint of food is crucial in promoting sustainable choices. Raw materials, particularly in primary production, represent the major contributor to food’s carbon footprint. By embracing sustainable farming practices, reducing the consumption of animal products, and favoring plant-based alternatives, individuals can actively contribute to climate change mitigation and foster an environmentally friendly food system.

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