Food & carbon: the facts

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Post author

Dan Betterton

The title of my first blog makes me a bit nervous…for a few reasons. For one, there are an awful lot of facts about food – there are trends and patterns but often no clear answers to questions such as “Should we buy only local food?” or “Is organic always best?” Secondly, reducing a conversation about food to environmental facts risks ignoring the equally important social and economic issues surrounding the food system – see the New Economics Foundation’s report on Reframing the Great Food Debate for an excellent discussion on these.

And, maybe most importantly, food is about more than facts. It is a huge part of our culture and identity, and great fun! In my blogs over the next twelve months, we’ll discuss how local food events can be an excellent way of generating enthusiasm for your community group from a base of this shared passion for food.

But, for this blog, and with these caveats in mind – and seeing as this is the Low Carbon Hub after all! – let’s plough on and have a look at some of the facts surrounding food and greenhouse gas emissions. I hope that some of the following information will help your group make decisions about how you might campaign to change behaviour locally to work towards a more sustainable food system. If you’re a new group, maybe these facts could provide a stimulus for one of your first group discussions – in my experience, it is a subject where everyone likes to get involved.

a bit of background reading

Let’s start with a few quotes (and some useful references for future reading). If you and your group are feeling slightly overwhelmed by the amount of information out there, you’re not alone:

“One could be forgiven for feeling confused about food in Britain. There is almost blanket coverage of it in the media, increasingly polarised between the foodie ‘strand’ … and the shock-horror exposé.”
Carolyn Steel, Hungry City

But there is general agreement that changing food behaviours is vitally important for a low carbon future, so your group has important work to do:

“Individuals can have an impact by making changes in their food-purchasing habits and diet.”
Nicholas Stern, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet

“The main option for those seeking to reduce their impact on the planet’s atmosphere are: [amongst others] buy local food. Locally-produced foodstuffs, bought directly from the producer or via a local shop, save transport. It will also probably save in packaging and manufacturing.”
Chris Goodall, How to Live a Low-carbon Life

“Changing your eating behaviour to source more of your diet locally is a great first step to reducing your carbon footprint”
Pat Thomas Stuffed: Positive Action to Prevent a Global Food Crisis

some hard facts

Now let’s have a look at some numbers and statistics: What does the food system look like in the UK? In his book, How to Live a Low-carbon Life, Chris Goodall looks at the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK food chain in 2010.


Source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions  Million Tonnes per year, CO2 equivalent
Fertiliser manufacture/transport  9
Methane from animals/slurry  19
Methane from soil management  4
CO2 from farm operations  6
Fertiliser use generating nitrous oxide  27
Road transport in the UK  7
Road/sea transport outside the UK  7
Air freight  2
Food & drink manufacturing/processing  11
Manufacture of packaging  10
Operation of retail stores  8
Consumers driving to stores  3
Landfill gas (rotting food)  13
Landfill gas (rotting packaging)  4
Approximate total      130  or 2.1 tonnes per person per year


Food is a big part of our overall footprint. And within this, the on-farm emissions are the biggest, with transport and processing coming next.

And how does it look locally? Landshare, the Oxford-based think-tank have compiled some local stats on food for the Oxford area. Assuming the footprint radius is about 7 miles, over a year Oxford needs:

  • about 400km2 of land for food production
  • 450,000 barrels of oil (that’s a quarter of a supertanker)
  • 375 million tonnes of water for its food chain

This equals about 320,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent for one year.

And for those who like visuals: the following graphics come courtesy of Richard Sheane at Best Foot Forward, the Oxford-based sustainability consultants.

footprint of UK consumption



And deciding what to eat makes a big difference:

what do we eat?
By energy intake



You’re still reading, so all those stats and facts haven’t put you off yet! But what can we do with all this information as local low carbon groups?

don’t be too prescriptive

My first piece of advice would be to share this information with your group and see what happens. Try not to be too prescriptive about what the solution is; just trying to jointly understand these figures and talking them through can take time. And be aware of some individuals who might want to polarise the arguments at one extreme or the other. Food is so personal that advocating behaviour changes, for example buying more local food or eating less meat, will require huge levels of sensitivity compared with promoting loft insulation or double glazing. You can download a factsheet summary of this page from my resource library to circulate to your group.

calculating your foodprint

After this meeting, let people digest (sorry…) the information before maybe meeting again to come up with some ideas for events or other group actions. If you would like to suggest some individual action that people can take away and do in their own time, there is an excellent and detailed Foodprint calculator developed by Landshare  – maybe you could model this in your session. If your group successfully uses the tool, please let other groups know what you’ve done via the comments section below. Saskya and Jo have also put together some resources to enable you to run a carbonbusting session on food. The session focuses on helping householders learn about the relative impacts of our food choices and suggests some positive changes we can make to our food shopping and cooking. This may be a good place to start, check out the Supporting greener living resource library.

Good luck with your group. Food should be a great excuse to get together, chat and have fun (remember the snacks…). Please post any questions below, and watch out for my blogs during the year which will give specific ideas for actions your group could take. There is a growing database and map of local sustainable food resources in my resource library. Have a look at what is happening around Oxford, and please add your group and other resources.

Dan Betterton


  1. Emma said:
    21 November, 2011

    Dan, this is great. I think you’re right on with not being overly prescriptive in approaching food issues – the facts and stats might be calculated, but how people feel about food varies. But getting people talking about food is fantastic, and can lead to amazing solutions!

  2. Julian said:
    22 November, 2011

    Thanks for this Dan. As the figures show, food can be as local as you want but still heavily carbon-intensive if it’s produced with fertilisers and over-packaged when it goes to market. Food miles are just a part of the picture. Local food is one great way of getting people engaged in the amazing cultural richness of food production in the UK and the various environmental and social issues more generally, but we also need to be thinking of ways of reducing the impacts of large-scale agriculture and centralised distribution. Local food is just 0.2% of the food we consume at the moment!

  3. Neil said:
    20 September, 2012

    I agree with Julian but its important to take into account peak oil as well long supply lines will not be possible. Great site and thanks for the link to the landshare food calculator not heard of this I will try it out.

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