As we draw towards the end of a difficult year, the promise of a vaccine-driven easing of the impact of the pandemic has been overshadowed by the emergence of a new strain (well, three months old in fact) of coronavirus and increased travel restrictions over the holiday period. The environmental impact of the local versions of lockdowns around the globe is still to be fully evaluated as restrictions continue to come and go, but the Global Carbon Project estimates the worldwide impact to be a drop of 7% across the year. Although this is of an unprecedented scale, it brings into stark focus what will be needed to achieve net zero by 2050. The UK’s sixth carbon budget, delayed like so many other things by the pandemic, has now been published and calls for 78% decarbonisation by 2035, partly as a consequence of slow progress so far. That is broadly equivalent to two-thirds of the pandemic effect cumulatively every year for a decade and a half. Set against the last year, that is almost unimaginable, and certainly unachievable without root and branch change to the system as a whole. In the food sector, land use change through afforestation (including 10% of farmland) and hedgerow planting coupled with major dietary change continue to be the key policy proposals. The CCC wisely includes the term “low-cost, low-regret” to describe the necessary actions, as ‘losers’ from the changes will need to be supported through a transition to the new-look system. The recommendation is a 20% shift away from all meat by 2030 rising to 35% by 2050, and a 20% shift from dairy products by 2030. In a study published by Survation in September 2019, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would be prepared to eat less red meat with nearly one-third prepared to become vegetarian as part of the move to net-zero.
That was then, and this is now. A study published in The Grocer this week (their annual Top Products Survey) found a range of changes in UK food shopping habits through the pandemic. As I write mostly about food systems, I’ll skip quickly over the drop in sales of personal care products (including toothbrushes and deodorant) and move on to meat. Sales of steak apparently increased by 8.7%; demand for chicken and sausages also rose. The emissions impact of meat varies from species to species and across types of husbandry, and the published data doesn’t include an analysis of country of origin. Also absent is an analysis of reductions in consumption elsewhere in the food system; out of home businesses spent much of the spring with their doors closed so lost sales from QSR establishments such as McDonald’s and Burger King, typically sellers of high volumes of beef products, would offset some of the rise in retail consumption. Other factors may be at play too. The springtime combination of good weather and additional free time for many people may have contributed to more consumption of some types of meat in back-garden barbecues (sausages were another category where a retail rise was reported). Households not impacted by job losses and furloughing would have been saving money otherwise spent on commuting and daily cups of high-street coffee and may simply have spent some of that on trading up in the grocery basket – a trend also seen when households save money by reducing food waste. A decrease in sales of sugar and chocolate noted in the same analysis may suggest that comfort eating may be less of a factor than might be imagined.
More encouragingly, sales of fresh vegetables, notably tomatoes, also increased so the data may simply reflect an increase in home cooking in place of food prepared out of home (school meals included, of course). In-home cooking, indeed any cooking, matters as part of the overall system. A paper recently published in Nature Food shows that the carbon impact of the ‘use phase’ of food products can account for 50-60% for cooked vegetables. They are still overshadowed in total carbon impact by animal proteins, of course, but should not be ignored in vegetables are to make up an increasing part of our collective diet. This energy usage is a consequence of the method, not just the need to ‘pre-process’ them by cooking. Vegetables will typically be boiled in a pan of water, with a quantity of water several times the weight of the food also being brought to the boil and held at high temperature throughout the cooking process by continued application of energy from the hob. Clearly the type of hob makes as big difference; electric hobs can be powered by renewable energy far more easily than gas. Modern induction hobs match gas for responsiveness and convenience, but that isn’t much help for people who own gas ovens and can’t easily afford a replacement. The study examines cooking methods in some detail and contains some useful content for food businesses looking to address their downstream scope 3 impact. The point of all this is simply to underline the fact that subsets of data in isolation are typically meaningless, and decisions taken without an understanding of the system as a whole are likely to flawed.