Why do food and restaurants matter for climate change?

What is a Foodprint?

  • A Foodprint is our term for the amount of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions (CO2e) produced by a restaurant or diner. A Foodprint can be calculated for a restaurant’s annual operations or just one meal, but it includes all of the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with that activity, including ingredients, energy use, transportation, and waste.

Why carbon? Why climate change?

  • To assess the full environmental impact of a meal is incredibly complicated—there are too many moving pieces. Assessing greenhouse gas emissions or CO2 equivalents (CO2e) is a proxy for a broader suite of environmental impacts relating primarily to the effects on global warming. As municipalities and corporations strive to lower their carbon footprint or achieve carbon neutrality, there is an opportunity for restaurants to help lead the transition from a non-renewable food system to a renewable food system.

How does ZFP calculate a foodprint?

  • When it comes to assessing environmental impact, scientists often employ a life-cycle analysis. A full LCA examines the total environmental impact of a product, from raw material to used item. For instance, if we were to analyze an egg, we’d look at everything that went into the care and raising of the chicken that laid the egg (what it ate, how the feed was grown, how the feed got to the farm); the transportation of the egg from the farm, to the distributor, to the store, to the consumer; and whether the shell was composted or deposited into a landfill. Perhaps we’d even examine the impact on or benefit to the soil if the chicken was pastured. Such a lifecycle analysis can run hundreds of pages, the product of thousands of hours of research.

  • ZFP uses an LCA-lite approach; focusing just on GHG emissions, not complete environmental impact. We are specific where possible—looking at actual power and gas bills, and real delivery schedules—and generalizing where necessary. To build on the egg example, we look not at a particular egg, but eggs in general, using publicly available information about emissions from eggs.

What emissions sources do ZFP include in their assessments?

  • Deliveries, including the frequency and size of trucks bringing food and supplies to each restaurant.

  • Electricity use.

  • Other energy use, specifically natural gas.

  • Waste breakdown and hauling.

  • Ingredient production, meaning the emissions associated with the cultivation and/or production of the raw vegetables, meat, and pantry items used in every dish.

What does the life cycle of an ingredient include?

  • Let’s take milk as an example. An LCA of a gallon of milk would start at the production of feed for the cows, continue through the processing of the milk, and end in a restaurant or a home. A gallon of milk has a carbon footprint of 6.9–9.4 kg of CO2, with variability coming from geographic differences and farming practices. 20.3 percent of that footprint comes from feed production, 51.5 percent from milk production, and the remainder is distributed across the rest of the value chain from processing the milk (pasteurization), to refrigeration in the consumer’s home.

Source:  Source: Innovation Center for US Dairy, U.S. Dairy Sustainability Commitment Progress Report: Sustaining the Dairy Industry for Future Generations, accessed January 9, 2011, http://www.usdairy.com/Public%20Communication%20Tools/USDairy_Sustainability_Report_12-2010%20(4).pdf.

Source: Source: Innovation Center for US Dairy, U.S. Dairy Sustainability Commitment Progress Report: Sustaining the Dairy Industry for Future Generations, accessed January 9, 2011, http://www.usdairy.com/Public%20Communication%20Tools/USDairy_Sustainability_Report_12-2010%20(4).pdf.

What are the biggest emission sources in a foodprint?

  • The production and distribution of ingredients are the largest single contributor to a restaurant’s foodprint.

  • Feedlot-raised red meat dominates the ingredients from a carbon-intensity perspective.

  • Food handling and preparation is energy intensive, with ovens, stoves, refrigerators, and other appliances drawing large amounts of energy. The energy sector is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

  • Beverages can also rank high on carbon intensity, especially any beverage high in sugar.

  • Waste, including food waste, creates emissions through its removal and disposal, not least from the methane emissions generated by landfills. 

What’s the deal with red meat? Why is it so carbon intensive?

  • Factory Farmed Beef production requires significant amounts of feed, land, and water. Inputs, such as fertilizer used to grow feed in many commercial beef operations, have a significant impact on emissions. And cows themselves contribute GHG through methane produced from their digestive process. If the cows were subjected to significant antibiotic use, the manure they produce cannot be used for agriculture and also releases methane.

  • Enteric fermentation is a natural part of the digestive process for many ruminant animals, including the bison that originally covered rangeland to the cattle on land today. A resulting byproduct of this process is methane (CH4), and while there is an initial global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane remains in the atmosphere only about 1/30th as long as CO2. So a lot of the anti-beef sentiment is predicated on a momentary timeframe instead of an ongoing one.

  • The other common misunderstanding about beef is surrounding the agricultural reality of the feedlot. Cows typically spend their first year on grassland even if they enter a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Though food system advocates find the feedlot deplorable, there are 760 million acres of rangeland in the U.S. and billions of acres around the world which represent an immense opportunity to sequester carbon. Practices like carbon ranching and regenerative grazing would also increase productivity so dramatically that calories from feed would be entirely unnecessary. Rather than ignore the opportunity presented by that land, Zero Foodprint works with restaurants and ranchers to transition the land use to optimal and climate beneficial outcomes.

How do you get to a “zero” foodprint?

  • Restaurants can mitigate their foodprint, particularly in their operations, by improving energy efficiency and reducing food waste. Beyond that, ZeroFoodprint utilizes offsets to balance out the emissions from restaurants. Those offsets [link] support food-related carbon projects around the world, including efficient cook stoves in Ghana and livestock methane capture in the U.S.

What is a carbon offset?

A greenhouse gas (GHG) or “carbon” offset is a metric ton of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) that is reduced, avoided, or sequestered to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere.

Why become a ZeroFoodprint restaurant?

  • Simply put, because it doesn’t take that much time or money, and it matters.

  • Currently the vast majority of farmland in the industrial food and farming system are not comprised of healthy soil. For reference, less than 2% of U.S. farmland or global farmland is organic. And so despite widespread traction, the agricultural reality has not changed dramatically from decades of “sourcing well when possible.”

  • By directly helping the best farmers continue their great stewardship and the not-so-sustainable farmers implement proven, climate beneficial practices, ZFP restaurants are creating a sustainable food system.

[1] Quantities of non-CO2 greenhouse gases are often converted to the “CO2-equivalent” tons denotation, calculated based on the strength of their atmospheric forcing effects per ton (as compared to CO2).