Science of Sustainable Living

Examining Chris' shopping bag to find out the carbon footprint of his weekly shop.
11 February 2014

Interview with 

Julian Cottee, Good Food Oxford


On to our main topic now and yesterday Cambridge hosted a conference discussing the environmental impact of the weekly food shop, and whether we can reduce it? To find out more we're joined by one of the speakers from the conference Julian Cottee from Good Food Oxford.

Chris - Hi Julian, So what is Good Food Oxford?

Julien -   Good Food Oxford is part of the UK Sustainable Food Cities Network.  So, it's our contribution as a city to creating a more sustainable food system starting with businesses and organisations and citizens in our own town.

Chris -   So, why wouldn't food be sustainable?

Julien -   Well, we know now that the food system as a whole is a major contributor towards greenhouse gas emissions globally for something like 20% or 30%, depending on how you measure, of our total global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system and that's all the way through from production to processing, the transport, to even cooking in our own kitchens and industrially, and waste in the end of life of that food system.  So, it's a pretty major bit of the emission total.  There's also a whole lot of other associated environmental costs on land, water, and energy use, as well as impacts on biodiversity.  So, it's really one of the main impacts that we as human beings have on the planet.

Chris -   But at the same time, we have to eat.  So, are we not therefore obliged to have some kind of food footprint, regardless of what we choose to eat?

Julien -   Yes, that's absolutely true.  Everything we eat, it has to be produced somewhere.  It has to take up some piece of land that needs water to grow.  There are other inputs into that system that has impacts globally, but the choices that we make about what we eat have a huge impact on what that footprint is.

Chris -   Well, I've been shopping.  I've got my shopping bag here.  So, I'm just A plate of cooked pork chops.going to pull a few things out of my weekly shop and I thought you could perhaps tell me whether I get sort of nil points or whether actually I've made a good choice.  Okay, so the first thing I've got in here because I'm lazy, I have a bag of salad.  Is that a good food choice or a bad food choice?

Julien -   On the face of it, this seems like a pretty good choice because salad growing is mostly done in this country and Europe, so it's not being transported a vast distance.  The land and energy and greenhouse gas footprint of that product is also not huge.  So, a tick there.  One thing that might concern is about your choice of salad, it's been in the press a lot recently about waste.  Now, globally, around a third of food that's produced is wasted and the figure to things like salad is even higher than that.  Tesco last year published - the first UK supermarket actually to publish their food waste figures and they revealed that about 68% of all the salad that is produced for them is wasted.  So, more is wasted than actually is getting eaten, and that in itself fits into a bigger issue of food waste within the system.

Chris -   Julien, I promise to eat all of these bag of salad.  The next item in my bag, I've got some pork cutlets in here.  I don't know where they've come from, but they have a tractor image on them, so they look like they're presumably home-grown.

Julien -   A red tractor.

Chris -   Yes.

Julien -   Yeah, that's British production.

Chris -   So, is that good or bad?

Julien -   Well, it's pretty good.  We've learned recently that actually, the impact of transporting our food may not have quite as big an impact as we've thought in the past.  But it's still a good idea to eat from as close as possible.  That's pretty good and obviously, supports the UK economy, we've got to think about with other things as well environmental impacts.  But generally, meat is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions especially lamb and beef because they're ruminant animals and release a methane which is very potent greenhouse gas.  So, pork may be a little bit better on that count because they're not ruminants.

Chris -   I'm redeeming myself mildly.

Julien -   I'm very thankful.

Chris -   Thank you.  Given that we've identified these problems and my shopping bag is not blameless, what can we actually do?  What are you trying to do in Oxford for example that we could also mirror in other cities which will reduce the impact of what goes into our shopping bags?

Julien -   What we're trying to do first of all is to work out what the current situation is in a city like Oxford because the food system is quite complicated.  There are lots of interactions.  Obviously, we have to think not just about our environmental impact, but also, all the other parts of our economy, the impacts of equity in the food chain, about our food culture and what's tasty.  We got to think about all those things linked together.  So, what we're trying to do is get a handle on that by doing a process called food printing which is food foot printing basically to work out where in the system most of the impacts are coming from and therefore, where we can make the best impact, where we can put our resources to best use.

Chris -   And hopefully, ultimately inform the consumer which I hope will then lead to their change in their behaviour.  Julien, thank you very much.  It's Julien Cote.  He's from Good Food Oxford.


Food production is a major contributor to climate change, but it occurs secondary to human population. If the population were not so high, we wouldn't need to keep all these cows or use all these fertilisers in the first place...

Add a comment