How can we reduce the carbon footprint of our diet?
When Yumfu interviewed Floop

We recently asked plant-based nutritionist, Callum Weir, about the health benefits of a climate-friendly diet. Callum is a certified nutritionist, founder of Yumfu, and host of Plant-Fuelled Podcast. He helps individuals transition to a plant-based diet with evidence-based advice and recipes.

But Callum had his own questions about how to choose food that's better for the environment. Here's his conversation with Kayleigh Goodman, one of Floop's co-founders.

How and why did you decide to look into the carbon footprint of food?


Well, I've always been a bit of a foodie. I've always loved reading about recipes and food. But I started coming across information about how our food systems are affecting the climate and I was interested in it because I'm always trying to look at ways to live a more sustainable life.


There are different estimates around, but generally, it's fairly agreed upon that around a third of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere come from our food systems. That's from various aspects from how things are grown, to how things are processed in factories, the transport, etc, but the total food system accounts for around a third of all greenhouse gases that are caused by humans. Which is a lot! 


It got me thinking about how – when we're trying to live a more sustainable life – people are thinking about recycling, they're thinking about electricity, or how we're getting from A to B. But it struck me that eating is something that we do every day and multiple times a day. And it's something that could be so easily changed to reduce the carbon footprint that we are responsible for personally, and that's also part of a bigger system where we could shift demand to create a more sustainable food system. 


So, that's what I started thinking about. And as I began investigating greenhouse gases and how to find out what foods were more sustainable, a bit like you with plant-based nutrition... it wasn't very easy to find everything in one place. It was a bit of a mission. And I started talking to other people about it and they had similar struggles and were interested in eating more sustainably, but didn't know how to.


Which gave me the idea of creating Floop, which is an app that would have that information all in one place. And a bit like MyFitnessPal, you can put in the ingredients of your meals and then see a breakdown of the carbon footprint of those meals. So you can see if it's comparatively high or comparatively low, and gradually learn how to shift to a lower carbon diet. So, that's why I wanted to look into the carbon footprint... really to see how we could all make little changes every day to have a positive impact on the environment, without it being an expensive way or having to buy new, reusable things.


When you were looking into all the carbon footprint of food, excluding meat, what food were you most surprised gives off the biggest carbon footprint? 


There are two that really stick out in my mind. They actually have a higher carbon footprint than some meats and some fish. Those two things are coffee and chocolate.


If we look at the ten "worst" ingredients, if you like, for the climate these are third and fourth I think. And so I suppose, the question is: why are these two ingredients so bad for their carbon footprint?


There are a few factors involved - as with all foods, there are lots of different factors that make up its carbon footprint. But, generally, coffee and chocolate come from tropical locations to reach us in the UK. They have to travel a long distance, not just to get to us in the UK, but they're often processed in plants in different countries. So, it might be in Italy for example. The coffee has to be transported to that location to be processed, made into chocolate bars, and then transported again to supermarkets to reach us in our homes, so there's a transport element. 


Then there's also a lot of energy that's needed in those manufacturing plants. Roasting the cocoa beans needs a lot of energy, which produces a lot of greenhouse gases as a byproduct. Making the cocoa butter by grinding the roasted beans into a paste, creating chocolate liquor, and then making them into the chocolate bars itself requires a lot of energy. And then we look at things like the packaging as well. A lot of chocolate comes in plastic packaging because it preserves the bar in that state for a long time, but a lot of energy goes into creating new plastics.


There are other issues as well that 'up' the climate impact. Where chocolate and coffee beans are grown, these are quite often places that suffer from high rates of deforestation and particularly rainforest deforestation. Rainforests act as a big natural carbon sink, so the trees absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and they lock them into the earth. It stops them from entering the atmosphere and creating that greenhouse gas effect that causes global warming. So, when we take those trees down to create new cocoa and coffee plants or trees, we're getting rid of those effective carbon sinks. There are lots of issues at play. 


We don't necessarily want to eliminate coffee and chocolate, but we can start to choose better. And that's what we're trying to encourage with all of our ingredients. Let's try to choose better when we're selecting our ingredients, so it's better for people, it's better for the planet.


If you wanted to reduce your carbon footprint for chocolate and coffee you could consume less of them. Now, that's very difficult for me to do when it comes to coffee! So, I've started to make it a bit more of a luxury... rather than choosing an instant coffee, now I have a nice filter coffee and just have one cup of it, rather than maybe four or five throughout the day.


When it comes to chocolate, choose dark chocolate which doesn't include milk. Milk also has a high carbon footprint, so if you can choose dark chocolate that's a way to reduce your carbon footprint. And then you can start to look at supporting different chocolate makers and coffee roasters as well. Smaller artisan roasters and producers, particularly ones that work from 'bean-to-bar' when it comes to chocolate, can take the beans from producers that they know directly. They can choose ingredients that aren't from areas of deforestation, and eliminate some of the stages of transport to reduce the carbon footprint.


It can be hard depending on your geographical location to source foods with low carbon footprints. How would you advise these kinds of communities to reduce their footprint when it comes to food?


One of the things that I like to look for in recipes while considering a low carbon footprint, is to use whole foods... similar to you Callum. Using whole foods is better because it's more accessible - you can access a whole plant or vegetables and fruits pretty easily across the country, whereas meat alternatives can be harder to come by depending on where you live. It's also cheaper, and as I've found out, it's better for you generally. There are lots of plant-based benefits when choosing whole foods.


But there are three questions that I always ask myself when I'm creating a recipe. The first thing I consider is: is it veggie? Is it plant-based? If it's plant-based you generally know that it's going to have a lower carbon footprint than something that's made with animal products, like meat and fish, which have a significantly larger carbon footprint and produce significantly more greenhouse gases. So that's the first question: is it veg-based?


The second question when choosing ingredients is to ask: is it seasonal? Is it seasonal to the UK  when you're purchasing it? So, for example, we know that strawberries come into season around May and June in the UK and last for the summer. When you're buying strawberries outside of the summertime, they've likely been imported from somewhere else and therefore have a slightly higher carbon footprint. Or, if they still come from the UK, they might have been grown in artificial conditions like a heated greenhouse. These need a lot of energy and produce a lot of greenhouse gases as a byproduct. So “Is it seasonal?” is a good question.


And then the third question to ask is: is it local? It could be local to your nearby area, it might be something that you've grown yourself or from a farmers' market nearby, or just even local to the UK. Asking has it come from within the UK can minimise the food miles and the distance ingredients have travelled. Transport produces greenhouse gases as we're moving food along and using fuel to get things from A to B. 


In terms of looking at how you can reduce your personal carbon footprint, with the Floop app you can start experimenting with your recipes. You can add in your favourite recipes so you can see how high the carbon footprint is, and then add another recipe you like to compare if it's higher or lower. Then you can start to choose your ingredients based on your favourite recipes, which are also good for the environment. 



What are the biggest swaps you could make when it comes to food that would benefit the planet? 

The big one is cutting out meat. It is one of the biggest things that you can do to reduce food's carbon footprint. You don't have to eliminate meat, you can reduce it. Even just reducing it a couple of times a week can have a significant impact on reducing the overall carbon footprint of your diet.


If you want to continue eating meat, then some meats have a lower carbon footprint than others. Beef has the biggest climate impact for every kilogram of meat that's produced. For every 1kg of beef, up to 100kg of CO₂ equivalents - which is the total greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere - are produced. That's 100 times its weight in greenhouse gases! But if we compare that to chicken, chicken has a relatively low carbon footprint. It's one of the lowest carbon footprints for all meats, so if you still want to carry on eating meat you could swap beef for chicken more often.  


If you cut out meat completely, you can start putting different plant proteins in like your tofu, seitan, nuts, peas, and things like that. That will help you to shift towards getting more efficient proteins into your diet when it comes to energy use.


Cutting out dairy is beneficial for the climate as well. So dairy comes from cows. Cows, like in beef production, produce a lot of methane and they can affect the quality of the land that they are on. This has a lot of environmental impacts. So switching out, or reducing the amount of dairy that you consume, is a really easy way to reduce the carbon footprint of your food.


One of the best substitutes I think we have is oat milk. The reason I say oat milk is because it has a low carbon footprint, it uses a lot less land than cows need to produce the equivalent amount of milk, and it's local. We can grow oats really easily in the UK, so we can get lovely local oats that then reduce the food miles and distance the milk has to be transported to reach you at home. There are some cool stories about dairy farmers switching over to producing oats instead, and creating oat milk rather than dairy milk.


In general, when it comes to choosing your ingredients, just being conscious of their origins can have a big impact. Are they from areas of high deforestation as we've already talked about? Are they travelling long distances to get to you?



Do you think the world can come together and start making these changes?


I do... I do think it's possible. I think it's going to take a long time, realistically. But we look at trends and attitudes over the last few years, for example, veganism has risen significantly over the last decade. Looking at Veganuary this year [2022] which has just ended, I think over 620,000 people signed up to try Veganuary, which is amazing. And that's on top of the years that have already been and the people who've already tried it! So, there's an appetite to consider the food we eat, the impact it's having on the climate, and working together as a community.


For me, and this is one of the motivators for creating Floop, I think we need to make it easy for people to make those changes. And that's key to getting people to change their behaviour. There was a research paper published this week [31 Jan 2022], which showed that when menus are changed, like in a cafeteria or restaurant, to have more plant-based options while not making changes to the meat options – that is they're not getting rid of them or they're not reducing them but simply providing more plant-based options and making it easier for people to choose them – reduces the number of meat options that are selected.


Just by presenting different choices to people, you're able to make behavioural shifts because it's there and it's easy to access.


In a sense that's what we're trying to do with Floop. We're trying to present new ideas, new inspiration for recipes, and make it easy for people to see the carbon footprint of what they're eating... so then they can start making those behaviour changes themselves, based on what they feel they're able to do at the time, or their overall goals for minimising their carbon footprint.



Why did you decide to become vegan?


It was a combination of factors. It started really when I was living abroad. I'd been eating more vegetarian food anyway because, living abroad, I became a little bit more exposed to our food systems in the sense of seeing animals before they became the food.


In the UK, we go to our supermarket and we get our steak and it's sliced and wrapped up. But there's not really a strong association with the animal in our culture. In other cultures, things can be a bit more open about "this is the animal and we're about to eat it now" and I decided I wasn't that comfortable with it.


Also, I've been very fortunate to travel. But I'd become a bit more exposed to the actual impact of climate change along the way. I was in Australia during the terrible wildfires at the end of 2019. I've seen areas that have been affected by flooding caused by extreme weather linked to climate change. I started to think about the actual impact on real-life people, as I'd started to read more about how the climate and our diet are interlinked. 


And then I started eating with friends who were already vegan and realized that, actually, I enjoyed the food, and I didn't feel like I was missing out, and I wasn't hungry. I also suspected I had a dairy intolerance, so I'd started to cut dairy out and just felt better. So, in the end, I just decided to give it a go and if I didn't get on with it... or didn't like it or felt poorly or whatever, I could always go back. And here we are... it's been over two years now, and honestly, I've never felt better! 

You said you might have a dairy intolerance. I did have a dairy intolerance as well, but I thought it was just a rare thing that happens. But it's 70% of the population! But most people don't realise they have it either.


Yes, well, I didn't. I'd only started to link it because every time I had ice cream, which I love, or a milky coffee, I'd just have a horrendous tummy ache. I also used to have bad acne, and then as soon as I cut out dairy, my skin cleared up and I didn't get the pain anymore. So I'm pretty sure it is that, and as you said, I'd just been living all my life with that and you don't realise it's not normal. 

You can also read our interview about the surprising health benefits of climate-friendly eating with plant-based nutritionist, Callum Weir.

Want to start tracking the carbon footprint of your food? Get the Floop app for iPhone now.