Fifty Minute Classroom

May 24, 2019, 11:12
Fifty-Minute Classroom: The Carbon Footprint of Food
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Fifty-Minute Classroom: The Carbon Footprint of Food

27 May 2016

Chef Weiner introduces instructors to the complicated ideas of teaching greenhouse gases associated with food’s carbon footprint.

By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE

In last month's article, I promised to continue our discussion of the global and environmental aspect of food, food consumers and the food service industry. I recently wrote about sustainability and local/farm-to-fork movement. This month’s article is dedicated to introducing your students to the carbon footprint of food.

As I have said in the previous two articles, I am not an environmental scientist. You don’t need to be one either to teach students the basics. Like sustainability and the local and farm-to-fork movement, carbon footprint issues are scientifically, politically, economically, socially, and emotionally tied together. The goal of this article is to provide you with enough knowledge to spark your students’ interest in learning more.

Basically, the carbon footprint of food refers to two things:

  • The greenhouse gases released into the environment by the production of the food
  • The amount of fossil fuels used to raise, transport and process the food.

There are many steps in growing, raising, shipping and processing food that has a carbon footprint. For example, for a pound of hamburger SOME of the carbon footprint factors include:

  1.  Producing the fertilizer
  2. Growing the feed
  3. Transporting the feed to the feed lot
  4. The carbon gases released into the environment by the cow
  5. The fuel used by the truck to transport the cow to the processing plant
  6. The fuel used by the meat processing plant
  7. The fuel used to transport the processed beef to the market including the energy and coolant needed to maintain the beef at the safe temperature
  8. The electricity at the warehouse used to keep the meat cool
  9. The fuel used to transport the meat from warehouse to the store
  10. The electricity at the store used to keep the meat cool and grind it into ground beef
  11. The fuel used by you to drive the ground beef to the classroom
  12. The electricity used to keep the ground beef chilled until ready to use
  13. The electricity or gas used to cook the ground beef in class
  14. The electricity, gas, and hot water used to wash the dishes after cooking and eating the ground beef.
  15. The fuel needed to either compost the scraps or take them to a landfill. (Most people forget this step.)

That’s a lot of steps! Imagine the complicated food chain of crawfish meat from China or tilapia raised on a farm in Vietnam. How many carbon-related steps are involved in getting that to your classroom in California, Alaska, Maryland, Nebraska, Kentucky or Florida? How many carbon steps are involved in serving a dinner of minestrone soup, a Caesar salad, coconut curry chicken with rice and carrots, a whole wheat sun-dried tomato and olive quinoa roll, and crème brulee with a raspberry coulis?

Generally speaking, the closer something is to nature and the closer you are to the food source, the less carbon footprint is involved. For example, lentils involve much less of a carbon footprint than steak. However, as with issues of sustainability and staying local, things are not always what they seem to be.

As I mentioned in the article on sustainability, tilapia from Vietnam might have a lower carbon footprint than locally caught salmon. This might sound strange but the amount of fuel per pound used to transport the tilapia on a modern container ship is probably much less than the amount of fuel used per pound for food transported in a decades-old fishing trawler whose engines have not been updated and maintained. I also brought up a similar point in the article on local/farm-to-fork movement. The farming and shipping techniques of a mega farm may result in less of a carbon footprint per tomato than an organic tomato raised by a small farmer 150 miles away and driven to market in a 20-year-old pickup truck.

Furthermore, foods you think have a relatively low carbon footprint might actually have a higher footprint than substitutes. For example, in researching for this article I was very surprised to see that lamb has a higher carbon footprint than beef! After all, I have heard about greenhouses gases and the high feed demands of cows I thought that beef would be on top of the carbon footprint food chain.

In a nutshell, what you need to teach your students is:

  1. There are fossil fuels and greenhouses gasses produced in the growing and raising, producing, processing, and transporting to market all of the foods we eat.
  2. Generally speaking, the closer the food is being produced to you the lower the carbon footprint.
  3. The less the food is processed and packaged the less the carbon footprint. (Think of a few pounds of apples versus a jar of apple sauce.)
  4. There is no simple, easy solution to minimizing carbon footprint. However, the issues of food’s carbon footprint and greenhouse gases need to be taken into consideration when purchasing and preparing food for the home or for a commercial food establishment.

If you would like more information or ideas on where to point your students, look up “low carbon diet” or “low carbon footprint foods” online. A number of these sites have great teaching tools and online games and tests to assess your knowledge.


Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation.

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