Want to know the carbon footprint of your menu items?

16 November, 2016 by
Danielle Bowling

Consumers and foodservice professionals can now be aware of the environmental impact of the dishes they create, thanks to the first ‘carbon footprint league table’, released by researchers from RMIT and Lancaster University.  

The greenhouse gas emissions dataset aims to help consumers and caterers calculate the environmental impact of the fresh food they eat and the menus they serve by identifying a greenhouse gas emissions hierarchy across food categories.

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RMIT’s associate professor Karli Verghese and Dr Enda Crossin worked with Lancaster’s Dr Stephen Clune and found that grains, fruit and vegetables have the lowest environmental impact, followed by nuts and pulses. Chicken and pork (non-ruminant meat) have a medium impact. Fish also had a medium impact, on average, however results between species varies significantly.  Meat from beef and lamb (ruminant animals with multiple guts) have the highest impact.

As part of their research, the authors worked with a residential age care organisation to develop a sustainability strategy to help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. A key finding was that the food served to residents contributed to a large portion of the organisation’s environmental impact.

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They also reviewed 369 published studies that provided 1,718 global warming potential values for 168 varieties of fresh produce including vegetables, fruit, dairy products, staples, meat, chicken and fish.

The authors have compiled a list to illustrate how much – or how little – food can be produced while generating one kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions.

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On average, one kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions equals:

  • 5.8kg of onions (about 50 medium onions)
  • 3.5kg of apples (about 20 medium apples)
  • 2.6kg oats
  • 1kg lentils
  • 1.2kg of peanuts
  • 800ml of milk
  • 290g of salmon
  • 290g of eggs (about five small eggs)
  • 270g of chicken
  • 244g of kangaroo 
  • 212g of rabbit
  • 131g of Australian pork
  • 44g of Australian beef
  • 57g of Australian lamb

Associate professor Karli Verghese said the study was the largest and most comprehensive examination of its kind, providing the first global league table for fresh food.

“We wanted to help people make informed choices, to empower consumers and people working in the food industry who would like to reduce their environmental impact,” Verghese said.

“With this full picture of the greenhouse gas impact of different foods, people can reliably work out more sustainable diets and menus for themselves and for their customers.”

Dr Stephen Clune, from Lancaster University, said “You would have a hard time arguing that you can replace beef with onions as they serve very different culinary and dietary requirements.

“However, it is possible to substitute red meat (beef and lamb) with other meats, or plant-based protein sources such as lentils and nuts that have a lower impact.

The paper is published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Cleaner Production (Volume 140, Part 2, 1 January 2017).