In recent years, the concept of environmental footprinting has gained traction among policymakers and has become a selling argument for the food and drinks industry.
As a result, a growing range of indicators have been developed to reduce the environmental impact of the food industry and help consumers to make more sustainable choices.
The ecological footprint is a well-known concept which compares human consumption with the Earth's ecological capacity to regenerate. This overall indicator is now being subdivided into a series of smaller subsets, including:
A series of concepts have also been coined specifically for the food and drink sector. The term 'food miles', for instance, was first introduced in the UK in the early 1990s and refers to the transport emissions of a given food product from the moment of production until it hits the supermarket shelves.
But food miles – shorthand for carbon emissions – are only one aspect of the total environmental impact of food. With sustainable consumption and production climbing up the political agenda, food companies, under pressure from environmental groups, have started looking at other aspects as well.
The total environmental footprint of food, if calculated thoroughly, should also take into account the land, water and energy involved in growing, producing and supplying food – from farm to fork. Following this logic, it should include the impact of the farming method, a separate footprint of fertiliser and pesticides used, another for packaging materials and animal feed, as well as the carbon footprint of refrigeration, transport and cooking.
According to the European Commission, the food and drink sector contributes to some 23% of global resource use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 31% of acidifying emissions.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) recently noted that agriculture was putting most pressure on the environment during the food chain lifecycle, with beef and dairy production causing the highest emissions. Food processing, meanwhile, is not seen as a significant contributor.
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