You can’t taste a carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is odourless and colourless. Food is sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and sometimes even a little bit umami.
When most of us think about food and drink we think about the taste, the smell and texture. It satisfies our hunger and quenches our thirst, or brings up the memories of childhood family dinners. Factoring in the impact on climate change is unusual for all but the most conscientious of consumers.
The simple truth is that food and drink sustainability can be a very complicated business to understand. There are a multitude of issues that need to be considered – from land use change to industrial energy efficiency – which can be confusing, occasionally counter-intuitive, often difficult to quantify accurately.
Take as an example two loaves of Kingsmill bread, one bought in 2009, and then another bought two years later. The newer bread might have tasted just as good as it did in 2009, but it would be significantly better for the environment. The carbon footprint was reduced by 13 per cent over those two years thanks to a number of improvements, such as energy efficient bakery ovens.
Practically, the best starting point for obtaining useful, meaningful and comparable data is with a full life cycle assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions produced. These need to take into account all the major emissions sources, from fertilizer to farm to factory to fork, and looking at what happens to the waste after it is finished.
We are increasingly seeing farmers and food and drink manufacturers taking on the mantle of responsibility for measuring and improving their environmental performance. They are doing this not just because they are best placed to do so, but because there is a long term risk in not taking action.
The impacts of a growing global population, with increasing per capita consumption tastes many cases, is starting to put a strain on our ability to feed the planet. This pressure is exacerbated by extreme weather events that affect agricultural production, which are expected to occur more frequently as the impacts of climate change are felt.
Already this year unexpected droughts in Brazil and grain-growing regions from Ukraine to the USA have resulted in sharp price fluctuations in commodities such as coffee, cocoa and wheat. It was only back in 2008 that record rises in the costs of staples such as corn, rice, wheat and soy caused food riots around the world, in countries such as Egypt, Senegal and Haiti.
Fortunately, as they realise the impacts that are being had on our planet and on their bottom lines, a lot of farmers, businesses and governments are starting to take some serious action on sustainability that is already having a notable impact.
The first and most important step for organisations is measurement, as this allows you to identify areas where the greatest impact can be had, leading towards effective management and continuous improvement. For example, the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia, is coordinating a range of actions across hundreds of companies and thousands of farms, through its Origin Green initiative. This has involved the largest ever carbon footprinting exercise of its kind, conducting sustainability audits for more than 43,000 Irish beef farms and now being rolled out across 18,000 dairy farms.
The understanding developed through this footprinting work is helping Bord Bia to share knowledge, promote best practice and drive improvements at farm level.
You may not be able to taste a carbon footprint, but you can measure it. And a focus on measurement is the best thing we can do to drive forward a more sustainable global approach to producing food and drink.