The Odd History Of The Food Carbon Footprint

As people become more aware of the environmental impacts of the food they eat, several important concepts have entered the food world and shaped the foods we eat and how we source them, alongside the server aprons and clothing often used for cooking food.

These include lifecycle analysis, food miles and the lengths of food supply chains. However, one of the biggest of these concepts is the concept of the food carbon footprint, and how low carbon diets have supplanted low carbohydrate diets in the popular psyche.

It is a general movement that has inspired a lot of other discussions about how we could focus on local dishes, avoiding long and complex supply chains that cause the ingredients for some dishes to travel a significant amount around the world before they reach our plates.

However, exactly how the term became commonly used in the food industry is a somewhat unique story, with the concept popularized by the most unlikely of sources.


The Ecological Footprint Model

The origins of the idea of a carbon footprint began with the ecological footprint, devised by William E Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, then of the University of British Columbia.

They devised a model based on what the planet can renew and measured how many “Earths” would be needed if everyone consumed at the same level as the person making their calculation.

The carbon footprint was a part of this calculation, as were water footprints and land footprints, with the carbon footprint measured in carbon dioxide tons emitted per year.

This concept began a slow shift away from the more general issue of pollution and towards a more specific focus on greenhouse gases in general and carbon dioxide specifically.

However, the concept of an individual carbon footprint was not widely known outside of academic circles until the mid-2000s, when the concept was brought into the wider consciousness by a somewhat unlikely source.


Individual Carbon Responsibility

In 2005, the marketing company Ogilvy was tasked by fossil fuel multinational corporation British Petroleum to design a campaign that instructed people to go on a “low-carbon diet”, although in this case the concept was meant more holistically than just their culinary choices.

Other fossil fuel companies such as Shell followed suit and focused heavily on individual responsibility, highlighting that collectively the steps individuals make are the reasons for increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere and the effect on global temperatures.

This campaign was highly successful, although given that BP continued to expand their oil drilling as of 2021 with little signs of stopping, there have been accusations made of hypocrisy.

This criticism was emboldened in the wake of environmental disasters such as Deepwater Horizon, which highlighted that large energy firms cause far more carbon emissions than individuals ever could.

Regardless, people have focused far more on their personal actions, particularly when it comes to the food they eat. There is more interest in local produce, local recipes and local restaurants, which not only reduces a meal’s carbon footprint but helps to preserve local culinary culture.

October 20, 2022 — Jacob Blakey