Food – an emissions offender?

The large proportion of food's total environmental emissions accounted for by raw materials production makes it especially important for the food industry to focus on reducing wastage.

At the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) in Gothenburg, they have been working for the last 15 years on research into the effect of food on the climate from a life cycle perspective. Thomas Angervall presented the results of their work at the Food & Climate seminar arranged by Matforsk – Nofima Mat.

"In Sweden, food accounts for as much as 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The figure in Norway is lower, but that is primarily due to the high proportion of raw materials-producing industry," says Thomas Angervall.

High emissions from agriculture

Unlike many other products, such as cars or electronics, in food production it is the production of raw materials that accounts for easily the greater part of the emissions. This applies especially to animal products, which is also the product group that comes out worst in terms of total emissions. 90-95 per cent of the animal products’ effect on climate occurs at the raw materials production stage. For all agricultural products, that figure is around 80 per cent.

For most vegetables, the effect on climate is also greatest at the raw materials production stage, with products grown in greenhouses coming out worst. "Swedish tomatoes, grown in greenhouses heated by fossil fuels, account for four times the emissions of Spanish tomatoes grown out in the open, and that includes the effect of transportation," explains Thomas Angervall.

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Among animal products, beef is the biggest offender. Milk and chicken have a relatively low effect on the environment, while cheese and pork are in the mid-range among animal products. In overall terms, fish is on about the same level as pork and cheese. But environmental effects vary a great deal between the various species and methods, mainly as a result of varying energy consumption.

Vegetables more affected by transport

Even though raw materials production accounts for the highest emissions, transport, processing, packaging and wastage are also important factors. One of the most effective methods of reducing the climate effects is to go over to using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. It is also important for agriculture and fertiliser producers to optimise the use of fertilisers and to use mineral fertiliser with nitrous oxide removal.

Naturally transport is a also a major user of fossil fuels. Aircraft are the major culprits. For example, when exotic fruit are flown to Norway, the greatest environmental effect will come from transport. The most energy efficient overseas transport method is by ship and over land it is by train. Trucks account for much greater emissions. For animal products, transport is of relatively smaller significance from a life cycle perspective.

The challenge for the food industry

Energy consumption, choice of raw materials, packaging and wastage are important environmental parameters that can be greatly influenced by the industry. Wastage is a great problem, both because the production of raw materials is greater than necessary, thereby making emissions unnecessarily high, and because wastage results in a greater volume of food waste to be disposed of. Process optimization and correct packaging are important in this context. Representatives of the food industry also had the opportunity to speak at the seminar and were able to tell that these issues are currently very much in focus. Nofima Mat followed up:

"Packaging’s poor environmental reputation is not entirely deserved. Even though it’s a fact that packaging increases the amount of waste, packaging is important for increasing shelf life, by giving food better protection from light for example. We are working on packaging in which the food is better sealed and on smaller packaging. Improvements like these are also financially beneficial for the industry," says Kjersti Trømborg of Matforsk – Nofima Mat.

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