Is your dinner costing the earth? The food we eat and climate change

Less meat, more vegetables, reduced food waste . . . These are among the ways you can help cut carbon emissions. An event in Dublin this week looks at how we produce food and its impact on climate change

When you sit down to dinner today, will you wonder about the environmental cost of that plate of food? What is the carbon footprint of your carbonara? How many air miles were flown by the aubergines in your moussaka? How much greenhouse gas was emitted to get that steak onto your plate?

It’s difficult enough to deal with conflicting messages about eating healthily, so how do we know if we are eating in an environmentally-friendly way? Are farmers using land as sustainably as possible to produce food?

These, and many more questions around climate change, will be raised at a gathering in Dublin on Wednesday organised by the Climate Gathering. The initiative brings diverse groups of people together to look at the challenge of climate change. And the group addressing Wednesday’s event is as diverse as you can get, with a poet, an academic, a stand-up comedian, a cheesemaker and a politician in the line-up.

Ryan Meade of the Climate Gathering says this will be the third in a series of Climate Conversations, all of which aim to promote a greater understanding of what a low-carbon future might bring for Ireland.


Any conversation about reducing our impact on the environment must start with food waste, according to Odile Le Bolloch, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency's Stop Food Waste programme.

She says Irish people generate about a million tonnes of food waste a year, and 300,000 tonnes of that comes from households. UK figures show that 30 per cent of food is wasted, and she says the figure is similar here.

“We’ve estimated that the average household is throwing away food worth €700 a year. And that doesn’t include the cost of bins to take away the food. And it doesn’t include all the energy that’s gone in to producing that food. The fertiliser, the nutrients and other resources have all been used unnecessarily. So the key focus should be on reducing waste when people talk about trying to reduce the impact on the environment.”

She encourages people to keep their food waste in a separate container, perhaps a caddy on the counter, so that they can clearly see what is being thrown out.

“You could even jot down why you are throwing it away. It will make you realise that you’ve spent €4 on something that’s gone straight from the fridge to the bin, and that will make you think when you are going around the supermarket the next time.”

She recalls working on a programme in which householders were asked to look at how much food they had in the house. “One family had two months’ worth of food in their presses at home. A nice way to get over that is to do a store cupboard challenge: don’t shop, and work your way through what you have at home.”

Salads are the greatest source of food waste, with almost 50 per cent of what we buy being thrown out. She cautions against buying pre-washed lettuce, saying it goes off much more quickly than a head of lettuce.

“Of course, the ideal scenario would be to grow your own and harvest it as you need it but that’s not for everybody.”

One quarter of the fruit and vegetables we buy are thrown out every week. “Perhaps you say, “Oh, I’m going to be really healthy this week” and you buy a bag of apples, a punnet of oranges and so on and if you add it up you could have 60 pieces of fruit. Are you realistically going to eat all that in a week?”

She also advises storing bananas separately from other fruit as they speed up the rotting process for the rest of the fruit.

Iseult Ward's eyes were opened to the cost of food waste when she met environmental scientist Aoibheann O'Brien. They set up Foodcloud, which connects businesses that have too much food with charities that have too little.

Using the Foodcloud app or website, supermarkets and other food businesses upload details of surplus food they won’t sell, and give a time for collection. This triggers a text message to charities in their community, and the first to accept the offer collects it from the business.

"It's such a simple and obvious idea and people can connect with it so easily," she says. Foodcloud got its big break when Tesco got involved on a trial basis. Now more than 100 Tesco stores are donating to Foodcloud. Since it began in October 2013, Foodcloud has redistributed the equivalent of more than 700,000 meals to charity.

“We’re redistributing around two tonnes of food every evening. We’ve got almost 300 charities signed up at this stage and we’re in 24 counties now.”

Leitrim is about to get involved, and Foodcloud is searching for a supermarket partner in Kilkenny. Ward is in talks with two other supermarket chains and hopes they will sign up to the initiative this year.

She will help prepare a meal for Wednesday night’s audience from food that would otherwise have been thrown out.

Digging with pen and shovel

Also attending will be poet and one-time farmer Peter Fallon, who will muse on his life digging with both pen and shovel.

He grew up on a farm near Kells, Co Meath, and moved away for school and college. He started writing poetry and set up the Gallery Press but found himself gravitating back towards where he grew up. He moved to Loughcrew and became a sheep farmer for 15 years but as the Gallery Press got busier he had to give up the flock.

He worries about the direction taken by farming. “I used to think that the divide in Irish culture was between the urban and the rural, but recently I have a feeling that the division is between people who farm on a big scale and those who farm on a small scale,” he says.

Many smallholders struggle to make a livelihood from farming while bigger farms are turning into food factories. “I worry that we are now farming the land the way we fished the seas, as if there is no end to plenty in them. I worry about the exhaustion of land and its capacity to yield well and what it should,” he says.

The dilemma facing agriculture is very challenging, according to Dr Paul Deane, energy researcher at University College Cork. Because of our reliance on farming, agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of greenhouse gases in Ireland, compared with less than 10 per cent in the EU.

“This is challenging as there is limited scope for deep emissions cuts in the type of grass-based agriculture we do here in Ireland,” says Deane.

The EU has committed to achieving emissions reductions in the range of 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, and if strong emissions reductions are not achievable in farming, they will have to come from transport, heat and electricity production.

“This presents very significant technical and economic challenges for the energy system in Ireland.”

Even if agriculture could halve its emissions by 2050, the energy system would still have to reduce emissions by about 95 per cent to meet the 80 per cent target.

Living well for life

But what can we do about all this? The World Wildlife Fund believes we should be doing more to ensure we have a sustainable diet. It has been running the Live Well for Life project in a bid to define what should be in that diet.

It assessed dietary patterns in France, Spain and Sweden for health, nutrition, carbon and affordability and suggested changes that would lead to a 25 per cent drop in greenhouse gas emissions from the countries’ food supply chains by 2020.

Reducing meat consumption was the first step as it has the highest greenhouse gas emissions. It found that a 25 per cent reduction in meat still complied with nutritional recommendations.

All three Live Well diets involved an increase in vegetable consumption because of their lower emissions, even when imported long distances.

The recommended dairy consumption remained similar to current levels but increases in bread, pasta and potatoes were recommended. In all three cases, the Live Well diets cost no more than existing diets, and in France and Sweden they cost less.

Ryan Meade says the general public, and not just farm organisations, need to start talking about climate change and the actions we can take.

“No one has all the answers. We’re not being dogmatic about it,” he says. “We just want to bring people together and create a conversation.”

How to Cut the environmental cost of your diet
Eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains
Waste less food
Eat less meat
Eat less processed food
Buy food that meets certified standards where possible, eg the MSC standard for fish or RSPO for palm oil.
Source: World Wildlife Fund

The Sustainable Use of Our Land – Climate Conversations will be held at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin on Wednesday, April 8th, at 7pm.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times