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The Carbon Footprint of the UKs most popular meals

Taking A Photograph Of Lunch

When cooking your evening meal, the last thing most of you will think about is its environmental impact on the planet. However, 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food alone, however, this is not spread equally (Poore & Nemecek, 2018). Researchers have found that the environmental impact of different foods varies massively, therefore, what we choose as consumers has a large bearing on our impacts on the planet. 

Understanding where the carbon emissions are coming from

Currently there is a major obsession in the UK with Ultra-Processed foods more commonly known as UP Foods, these foods are high in fat, sugar, and salt. UP Foods now make up half of our meals due to there cheaper prices and long shelf life, which is helpful in the current economic climate. However, processing food increases the amount of carbon emissions released during production, therefore, increasing the UK’s related carbon emissions. The UK population also consumes around 50-100kg of meat products per person per year. With meat considered one of the highest carbon emitters in the food industry, these figures don’t look promising (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, n.d.). 

Below are breakdowns of the carbon footprints linked with common and popular evening meals made and bought by the population of the United Kingdom, which sheds light on why food is a large contributor to global emissions (Viesmann, n.d.) [Kazer, Orfanos & Gallop, 2022].

Fast Food and ‘Ready-Meals’ 

Due to their heavy use of meat products, fast food restaurants are the sector’s largest carbon-emitting eateries. The staggering volume of meat these companies require comes with a steep price; McDonald’s produced more than 53 million metric tons of greenhouse gas in just 2019, which exceeded several European nations’ emissions (Perkin, 2021). 

Coming in second in the greenhouse gas emissions race is the ‘ready meal’ market. Last year Cambridge University Press published an article showing that ready meals (especially animal-based) have lower nutritional quality, higher greenhouse gas emissions, and are more expensive than home-cooked meals (Aceves-Martins, 2023).

Homes Cooked Meals With UP Foods (Pre Processed)

One of the major environmental problems with UP Foods is the use of products from across the globe. Importing ingredients from overseas adds carbon emissions to the goods even before they get used, as they gain a carbon footprint simply through transport. While this is cheaper than locally sourced goods, the negative impacts on both the environment and nutritional gain far outweigh the cost impact. 
Below is a breakdown of popular home cooks meals with pre-processed UP food, specifically meat, pasta and pre-processed vegetables. These additions make a significant difference in the meal’s environmental impact and nutritional value. 

Meal Piecharts

Both dishes emit 30kg of CO2 per meal (assuming four portions per meal) just for the ingredients alone. Once cooked (assuming it’s an electric oven) there is an additional 0.531kg of CO2 added. While this may not seem like a lot, when multiplying this by the number of households just in the United Kingdom, which the 2022 census estimated at 28.2 million, you end up with 846 million kilograms of carbon released in one afternoon (Office for National Statistics, 2023). When one fully grown six-metre tree can store 3,224kg of CO2 we would need 262,000 trees to capture the release of one night of meals. 

What’s Causing This

As seen from both meals, the big carbon emitters were - you guessed it - the animal products, with beef, on average having a higher carbon footprint than any other animal product. Research has found that meat and other animal products are responsible for around 58% of the food-related emissions globally (Poore & Nemecek, 2018) [Stylianou, Guibourg & Briggs, 2023]. 

Using out-of-season products also adds additional carbon emissions to our meals as these have been grown in artificial environments using more energy or shipped across the globe. 

Land requirements and the general needs of animals, such as food and water, are also additional environmental impacts that are caused by animal product consumption. 

  • Has the area been deforested to be used as livestock land? 
  • Is the farmer using greenhouses heated by fossil fuels?

The list of contributing factors that impact on our foods' carbon footprint is endless. However, there are choices we can consciously makes as consumers to reduce the carbon footprint of our meals. 

Quick Wins for dropping your foods carbon emissions

Buy local seasonal goods
Buying seasonal foods from local shops can help reduce the carbon emissions associated with your meals, as they are transported over a shorter distance than commercial year-round foods. Buying locally also helps prevent excess food purchasing, as you only buy what is needed, further reducing carbon emissions from food decay in landfills. 

Shift your diet away from meat and animal product-heavy foods 
Cutting out meat and dairy products completely could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by two-thirds (Stylianou, Guibourg & Briggs, 2023). While this may seem a bit extreme for some, adding a day or two of meat-free days into your diet is also an amazing and effective way of reducing your carbon footprint without totally removing it from your diet. Changing out the beef mince in the Spaghetti Bolognese for a plant-based mince lowers the carbon emissions of the meal to 3.67kg of CO2 per meal which is a reduction of over 87% in carbon emissions.

Plant Based Chart

Cook more at Home 
While cooking at home with UP Foods also releases carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, the release from cook at home is still far less than that of takeaway food and ready-made meals from your local supermarkets. These meals are also more nutritionally balanced, giving you the best of what the food can offer. 

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