New research presented at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference reveals that in primary schools in England, beef and lamb dishes make up 5% of the total food served in terms of weight, but account for 37% of the total carbon footprint. Chocolate desserts make up 3% of the total food in terms of weight, but are responsible for 19% of the total water footprint.
Researchers Valeria De Laurentiis, Dr Dexter Hunt and Professor Chris Rogers from the University of Birmingham developed an Environmental Assessment Tool of School Meals (EATS) to assess the average carbon footprint and water footprint of a school meal in England, based on the Primary School Food Survey.
The team then trialled the tool, swapping just one school meal a week from an existing school menu for lower carbon and water intensive alternatives. Swapping just four out of 20 meals for different dishes resulted in a 35% reduction in the overall carbon footprint of the school meals in a one month period.
If every school in England were to do the same, it would save an equivalent amount of carbon as the entire city of Glasgow going car free one day every week. That equates to saving 114 million kg CO2 per year.
The researchers, who have worked on the project for three and a half years, say the tool can be used beyond school meals, and could be used in restaurants and other mass catering settings, as well as by individuals and families who want to make greener choices when cooking at home.
Previous evidence shows that reducing carbon and water footprints in food is best achieved by cutting down meat in meals, but the team warn that the public are unlikely to accept drastic changes. With this tool, people can play around with what they want to alter in each meal and therefore make more sustainable choices.
The tool also calculates the various stages of the food supply chain (production of ingredients, food transportation and meal preparation in the school kitchen) and how these contribute to the overall environmental impact of a meal. This helps identify ‘worst offenders’.
Analysing the Primary School Food Survey revealed that beef was the worst offender environmentally, but a fifth of the total carbon and water footprint was down to food waste. This was judged on the weight and composition of leftovers; the survey showed that almost a quarter of every school meal was left uneaten. It was mostly vegetables being left behind.
Food transportation is often believed to be environmentally detrimental, accounting for a high proportion of the impact of the supply chain. Using EATS proves that this isn’t always the case. The carbon footprint from shipping is actually very small, and it’s therefore better to buy tomatoes in winter from Spain by ship, rather than sourcing from colder (but closer) countries that require heated greenhouses.
Valeria De Laurentiis told the conference:
“There is growing awareness that we all need to adopt more sustainable diets. A key strategy to achieving this is encouraging a shift amongst school children, as they are the custodians of the future generations to come.”
When assessing the contribution of different food items to the carbon footprint and water footprint of school meals in England (based on the Primary School Food Survey), a number of hotspots were identified:
Beef and lamb dishes represented 5% of the total food served in terms of weight, however they were responsible together for 37% of the total CF
Meat based dishes represented 10% of the total food served in terms of weight, however they were responsible together for 38% of the total WF and 52% of the total CF
Chocolate desserts represented 3% of the total food served in terms of weight, however they were responsible for 19% of the total WF
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2. Valeria De Laurentiis, Dexter Hunt and Chris Rogers’ presentation is taking place on Wednesday 29 August 2018 at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference at Cardiff University. The conference is being held from August 28 – 31. It is the largest geography conference in Europe, with more than 360 sessions and 1,300 papers being presented. Full details on the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2018 can be found at https://www.rgs.org/research/annual-international-conference/
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