The contribution of food production, processing, distribution, and consumption to our global carbon emissions has been a matter of concern and debate since we began worrying about climate change. And more of our food is ‘carbonated’ than Coke and Pepsi: food systems are responsible for somewhere between a fifth and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of these emissions come from agriculture, although the contribution of transportation, refrigeration, consumer practices, and waste management is growing. Food companies can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint – and many are. A recently released report by Foundation grantee Climate Smart highlights what 77 food companies in BC have done to cut carbon, including Left Coast Naturals (a distribution company), Van Houtte coffee, Recycling Alternatives (biofuel recycling) and Tacofino food trucks.
Climate Smart estimates a 5% reduction in annual carbon emissions from BC’s food and beverage sector would save BC businesses $100 million in operating costs by 2020 and reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tonnes. This is the equivalent to taking 48,136 cars off the road.
In tune with the idea of ‘shared value’ popularized by Kramer and Porter, what’s good for the climate is often also good for the bottom line. But they don’t always line up perfectly. For example, the largest source of carbon emissions for one food manufacturer profiled in the study is landfilled waste, at 32% – but this represents only 12% of its costs. The opposite situation occurs for electricity, which accounts for only 5% of the company’s emissions but 50% of its costs (see illustration below). This points to the long term importance of making environmental and social costs line up more closely with the prices we pay for products, for example by putting a price on carbon.
In the meantime, businesses can reduce both costs and carbon emissions by acting across all fronts. In the example of landfilled waste, food companies are creating composting programs, using more recyclable materials, and reducing packaging to cut their emissions.
We know that measuring ‘food miles’, the distance food travels to reach our plates, does not correlate directly with environmental impact, nor does it give the full picture. Many other factors such as the energy used in production (greenhouse tomatoes can require more energy than field tomatoes) and method of transportation (large volumes travelling by ship can be more efficient than small volumes moved by truck), need to be considered. Left Coast Naturals realized that as a distribution company, 80% of their carbon impact came through their supply chain. Among other things, they developed a ‘score card’ for suppliers, began supporting smaller growers that practice sustainable farming, and shifted from trucking to bringing in supplies by less carbon-intensive marine and rail shipping where possible.
Even more fundamentally, the choice of food itself has a huge carbon impact, since some foods (vegetables or pulses) are much more efficient than others (hamburgers…) in converting energy to calories. On the other hand, the impacts of local food systems go beyond their carbon footprint to include local economic impact, social benefits from direct contact with producers, knowledge and trust (for example about how animals are raised), freshness, and regional biodiversity.
While these multiple layers and factors can make for difficult choices at the grocery store, it’s clear that there are many ways to reduce the ‘carbonation’ of our food system and ‘walk more lightly’ on the earth. Kudos to Climate Smart for leading the way.