An article in the Independent today (sunday) reports on research carried out at Lancaster University, which estimates that the greenhouse gas footprint of UK food consumption could be reduced by a quarter if everyone went vegetarian – this would mean an annual reduction of around 40 Million Tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the 167 MT current footprint.
I was a bit surprised that the reduction was so small, since we are repeatedly told what a large footprint the meat and dairy industry has. It didn’t answer the question that always occurs to me when this argument is advanced – what would happen to all the land that is currently grazed but is not suitable for cereal or vegetable production?
But it also reminded me of another story I had seen last year, about the water and carbon footprint of waste in the UK, with some excellent research carried out by WWF and WRAP. This showed that avoidable food waste had an astonishing footprint of 20 Million Tonnes of Co2 equivalent. So we could save half as much climate change impact by just getting rid of avoidable food waste as we could if we all went vegetarian. This would be a much smaller change in behaviour and one very few people could argue against.
While on the topic of footprints, the WRAP/WWF report into food waste also looked at the water footprint of avoidable food waste – it estimated that this was 6.2 Million cubic metres per year – around 6% of the total water footprint of the entire UK. I wonder what the reduction in water footprint would be if we all went vegetarian – does anyone know?
Footprints are a useful way of bringing home to us the impact of different lifestyle choices we make – how much we travel by car vs rail, how much meat we eat, and so on.
I think we should also have a biodiversity footprint – which shows how much biodiversity is lost or gained as a result of our lifestyle choices. Yes it would be very difficult to measure, but I think it would be well worth the effort. Compare say the biodiversity footprint of an intensively produced banana from Central America, grown in plantations on former rainforest, with an apple produced in a relatively unintensive orchard in England. The biodiversity footprint of the banana would be pretty massive, while arguably the apple might have a positive biodiversity footprint, as the orchard might support lots of wildlife and it wouldn’t make much sense to count against the biodiversity footprint of the orchard the biodiversity of the wildwood that once occurred there but disappeared maybe 8ooo years ago.
In the same way, beef from feed-lot cattle fed on soy grown on what was once the great grasslands of the Argentine Pampas, has a far higher biodiversity footprint than beef fed on grass in the UK, especially if that grass was from wildlife-rich grasslands.
I think the biodiversity footprint of a product is as important as its carbon footprint, maybe more so. But while there is a great deal of debate, policy and action taken to address the impact of climate change and the need to reduce our carbon footprints, no such effort is being put into the loss of biodiversity.
This really is the elephant in the room.