Food, the carbon story


Over the last five years, the Carbon Trust has certified the carbon footprints of a wide range of food products, and worked with a variety of companies to help them understand the carbon content of their food.

As a result of their footprinting work, these organisations have been able to cut carbon and costs thanks to improved operational efficiencies. Lowering the carbon emissions also leads to enhanced brand reputation and the ability to demonstrate with confidence and credibility their commitment to lowering their environmental impact.

Climate Week's focus this year is on the knotty problem of food and its carbon content; an area in which the Carbon Trust has considerable expertise.

When it comes to agriculture, the Carbon Trust has footprinted 48 farm and food products, and we have worked with a number of meat and dairy businesses to certify footprinting models to measure the emissions from producing and supplying animal feed, beef and milk. The footprints we measure and certify can be trusted because of the robust, internationally recognised standards we measure to.

Why measure carbon footprints of food?

According to a Carbon Trust study, each person in the UK has an annual carbon footprint of 11 tonnes of CO2 and equivalent (CO2e). About a fifth of the average personal carbon footprint - the total amount of carbon we produce from all our activities and the choices we make in our daily lives - comes from the food we eat. Therefore, if we are to limit our impact on the environment and help the UK meet its target of reducing carbon emissions by 34% by 2020, from 1990 base levels, it is critical that we take steps to understand the carbon impact of our food choices, and then find ways to balance our daily personal carbon emissions.

Carbon footprinting is a first step in uncovering the carbon content of food and this can be communicated to consumers via labels, such as the Carbon Reduction Label, to help inform food choices. Carbon footprinting is also a sensible starting point for businesses to assess and then work to reduce the carbon in their food products.

How are carbon emissions generated in the production of food?

To understand the carbon emissions from food production, you need to take into account all the carbon-emitting processes that occur as a result of getting food from the field to our plates:

  • Production: Farms generate a large proportion of the emissions from food production as a result of processes including deforestation, fertiliser production and use, and livestock management.
  • Origin: Transporting food around and storing it generates emissions. However, this activity also has the potential to make the food industry more efficient and cost-effective by providing food where and when it is required.
  • Seasonality: Growing food out of season, either in the UK or overseas, can be a high-carbon method of production. Seasonal food tends to have a lower carbon footprint.
  • Home care: Food waste in the home directly increases emissions as extra food production and expense is required in order to replace wasted food.


Addressing the carbon emissions from food production and distribution

Product carbon footprinting helps companies and consumers to understand how products and supply chains are responsible for carbon emissions, and helps identify the most effective ways of reducing them. Footprinting highlights the opportunities for greater energy efficiency, reduced waste, streamlined logistics and other efficiencies - and the potential to offer consumers lower carbon products.

The Carbon Trust worked with Kingsmill to calculate and certify the carbon footprint of Soft White, Tasty Wholemeal and 50/50 bread. All stages along the supply chain were reviewed and the energy used at each stage was measured in order to ascertain the carbon emissions produced at each stage in the production of the loaves. This enabled Kingsmill to outline its carbon reduction plans.

Kingsmill achieved footprint reductions for all three bread products as a result of replacing older ovens and other manufacturing equipment with more efficient models. Kingsmill is making a range of further changes that will lower the amount of energy it uses across all its operations involved in producing the loaves, which will hopefully lead to further reductions in the bread footprints.

The footprinting work enabled Kingsmill to identify, and then focus carbon reduction efforts on, the carbon intensive areas in their supply chain. Cutting carbon, as well as benefiting the environment, can help uncover cost savings thanks to improved energy efficiency and waste reduction. Limiting the environmental impact of organisational activities can also bring significant benefits to brand reputation.

Product carbon footprinting helps organisations respond to customers' increasing demands for information on the environmental impact of their food choices. Carbon Trust research found that nearly nine out of ten consumers now want their favourite brands to help combat the threat of climate change by reducing their carbon footprint, and almost half actively seek information about the carbon impact of the everyday products they buy. Also, 61% of the public are more likely to buy from a company if it has a good reputation for reducing its impact on climate change.

Find out more about carbon footprint measurement and certification.