Earth Day: Examining the Environmental Impact of Food

April 22nd is Earth Day, an awareness event emphasizing the need for environmental protection. As humans, we have a complicated relationship with our environment, one that is essential for us to understand and examine. Only when we recognize our impact on global environmental systems can we take informed steps toward a better, brighter, and more bountiful future for all.

Today, let’s take a look at the complex relationship between our food systems and the environment. We’ll explore issues like carbon emissions and food waste, then turn our focus to see what a healthier future can look like with sustainable food systems.

The Carbon Footprint of Food

What is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is a measure of the carbon compounds emitted as a result of fossil fuel consumption from a particular person, item, or event. The carbon footprint of food items therefore takes into account carbon emissions resulting from food production and transport. It’s also important to consider the carbon emissions that result from the disposal and decomposition of food that isn’t consumed. This harmful waste highlights the role of food distribution in carbon footprints, and speaks to the need for improved distribution in our food systems.

Agriculture and food production are responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the majority of these emissions coming from the production of meat, dairy, and other animal products. In 2016, agriculture, forestry, and related land use accounted for 18.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The production of meat—particularly beef—has a significant carbon footprint. Livestock farming is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, largely due to the release of methane from cows and other animals. Deforestation and other land use changes, associated with creating space for grazing and growing feed crops, also play a part.

All this translates to poor energy efficiency in meat production. In beef production, for example, only 1.9% of calories in animal feed inputs were effectively converted to animal product. Poultry is a more environmentally friendly meat, with a greater (although still slim) energy efficiency of 13%. Studies have shown that reducing meat consumption, especially beef, can be an effective way to reduce your own carbon footprint and help combat climate change.

What are food miles?

Food transport is also a crucial contributor to the carbon footprint of food. The impact of transportation is often conceptualized by food miles, which refer to the distance food is transported from the point of production to the point of consumption.

This measure emphasizes the environmental impact of transporting food long distances, including the release of greenhouse gasses from transportation. According to recent studies by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “the food supply chain in many countries is on course to overtake farming and land use as the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses from the agri-food system.”

The Impact of Agriculture on the Environment

In addition to carbon emissions resulting from the agricultural sector, industrial farming impacts the environment in various negative ways. This includes harmful agricultural practices that decrease soil quality, pollute water sources via agricultural runoff, and increase crops’ risk of disease through monoculture. These detrimental effects of industrial agriculture highlight the need for local and sustainable agricultural systems and processes with both people and planet in mind.

Food Waste and the Environment

Another significant aspect of the environmental impact of food is food waste, with an estimated 30%-40% of the entire US food supply going to waste. This not only wastes resources such as water, land, and energy that were used to produce the food, but also contributes to climate change. When food waste ends up in landfills, it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The NRDC reports that “emissions from global food loss and waste are greater than all of the EU countries’ greenhouse gas emissions combined.”

Sustainable Food Systems

One way to mitigate the environmental impact of food is to shift toward more sustainable food systems. One example of a sustainable food system is organic farming, which avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and instead relies on natural methods of pest control and soil fertility. Another is regenerative agriculture, which takes a holistic approach to farming that aims to improve soil health, increase biodiversity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Improved local food systems are also an impactful way to reduce the environmental harm of food production and transport, while improving community health along the way. Local food systems reduce food miles, promote eco-friendly food initiatives like community gardens, and help reduce food waste. Here at the SLO Food Bank, our programs aim to bring good nutrition to our community while championing environmental sustainability.


One of the ways we reduce food waste this is through our food rescue programs. Many commercial growers and private homeowners have fruit trees or entire orchards and fields that produce more fresh fruit or vegetables than they can harvest. The SLO Food Bank’s GleanSLO program rescues food that would otherwise go to waste. From local farms, orchards, backyards, and farmers markets, these extraneous foods are distributed instead to those in need. Talk about a win-win!

The SLO Food Bank also reduces food waste and alleviates hunger by rescuing edible food from grocery stores and other food service providers. Through our innovative Agency Direct Rescue (ADR) Program, our Agency Partners rescue near-date food products from participating local grocery stores at no cost. By rescuing this food, we are able to reduce food waste, and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, while providing local families with nutritious foods at no charge.

About the SLO Food Bank

We at the SLO Food Bank believe that everyone has the right to nutritious food. That’s why we work hard to ensure access to fresh food for everyone in our community. We structure our programs in a few different ways to make fresh produce more accessible and affordable for those who need it. We also promote food assistance programs like CalFresh, while hosting food distributions in the most rural areas of our county, where a grocery store may be more than 50 miles away. 

With our network of community partners in San Luis Obispo, we strive to alleviate hunger and to build a healthier community. If you’re in the area, check out our Food Locator to find food sources near you, or support our cause through volunteer opportunities or donations, if you are able to give. With reliable access to wholesome food, we are all healthier, happier, and more productive members of our communities. Donate today to help us bring health and happiness to San Luis Obispo County!