Emissions from food

Total greenhouse gases

The total greenhouse gases from food is taken to be 2.2 tonnes CO2 equivalent per person per year.

The components of this are shown in the table below. All figures below are per year.
ComponentUK million tonnesTonnes per personAvoidable tonnes per person
Fertilizer use420.70.7
Meat and dairy consumption240.40.4
Food transportation170.30.25
Processing of food110.180.15
Decomposition of food130.220.2

Other estimates are:
Per person per yearSourceNotes
0.6 tonnes CO2 [1]for food and drink
1.4 tonnes CO2 [2]'Food and catering'
1.9 tonnes CO2 equ. [3] (The Cabinet Office report) from a UK total of 116 Mt CO2 equivalent for food - 110 Mt plus an allowance of 6 Mt for the balance of imports over exports (21 less 15 Mt)
2.0 tonnes CO2 equ. [4]
2.1 tonnes CO2 equ. [5]the main difference from source [2] is in the inclusion of methane and nitrous oxide as an equivalent amount of CO2.
Mt = million tonnes

Fertilizer use

So switching to organic food can reduce an individual's carbon footprint by 0.7 tonnes CO2 equ.

Meat and dairy foods

So switching to a vegan diet can reduce an individual's carbon footprint by 0.4 tonnes equ.

Food transportation

So switching to buying local food could save most of this total e.g. 0.25 tonnes per person.


Buying minimally packaged foods could save most of this total i.e. 0.2 tonnes per person.

[Composting organic packaging could save a proportion of it]

Processed food

Avoiding processed food could save most of this i.e. 0.15 tonnes per person

Food waste

In the UK, about one third of the food bought is thrown away, and at least half of this is food that could have been eaten [6]. Inedible food includes potato peelings, bones, banana skins and teabags. Edible food can be discarded because too much is prepared, or because it has gone past its use-by date and so on.

Another way of looking at this is that relative to food eaten, on average another 25% is wasted, and a similar amount is inedible food.

If this 25% waste is reduced by half to 12.5%, then the edible food bought falls from 125% of what is eaten to 112.5%, and all emissions connected with food fall by one tenth - and the total amount discarded (edible plus inedible) falls by one quarter.

If someone throws away more food than average by half as much again, then the edible food bought rises from 125% of what is eaten to 137.5%, and all emissions connected with food rise by one tenth - and the total amount discarded (edible plus inedible) increases by one quarter.

Landfill decomposition of food

Composting or re-using food residues could save most of this i.e. 0.2 tonnes per person. This amount would be more or less depending on how much edible food is wasted.

Greenhouse gases that are hard to avoid

These comprise [5]

These total 11 Mt CO2 equ (0.2 tonnes per person)

Miscellaneous points

UK food production is only 60% of UK consumption [3]

Food exports from the UK are worth around £6.5bn - with cereals and fish making the largest contribution [3] .

Food imports are worth almost £20bn, vegetables and fruit being the largest category [3] .

The origin of UK food is as follows (2006 data, based on unprocessed farm-gate prices) [3] :
Europe (EFTA)29%
N. America5%
S. America4%

Units & Abbreviations

Mt: million tonnes (referring to the UK total)
CO2 equ. : CO2 equivalent
Figures given are per year


[1]www.carbonfootprint.com/results.php (viewed 13.8.06)
[2]Carbon Trust (2006) The carbon emissions generated in all that we consume www.carbontrust.co.uk or www.carbonindependent.org/files/ctc603.pdf
[3]The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit (2008) Food: an analysis of the issues www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk or www.carbonindependent.org/files/cabinet_office_food_analysis.pdf
[4]Ethical Consumer Magazine Your Contribution to Climate Change (July/August 2005) (www.ethicalconsumer.org) and www.quakergreenaction.org (accessed 13.8.06) - see also [7]
[5]Chris Goodall (2007) How to live a low-carbon life (Earthscan)
[6]WRAP (2007) Understanding Food Waste www.wrap.org.uk or www.carbonindependent.org/files/foodwasteresearchsummaryfinaladp29_3__07_25a4c08b.b8683843.pdf
[7]Your Contribution to Climate Change (June 2007) www.livingwitness.org.uk (accessed 20.1.08), an update of source [4]

First published: 2008
Last updated: 13 Sep 2023