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Food purchases can affect climate

How much and what kind of foods you buy can have an effect on our climate.

MU Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Assistant Professor Christine Costello recently worked with a team of researchers including people from Tufts University, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the University of Connecticut that illustrated that food decisions can reduce greenhouse emissions.

Christine Costello

Christine Costello has worked on a variety of environmentally-based research projects throughout her career, including several related to food and its environmental impacts. For this study, she provided input-output life cycle assessment (IO-LCA) modeling expertise.

The study was published in Food Policy and showed that, in 2013, 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions were created by food purchases. Rebecca Boehm was the study’s lead author and is a postdoctoral fellow at UConn.

“She obtained really detailed purchasing data from a variety of demographics so she was able to consider food purchasing patterns across income brackets,” Costello said. “The effort was to explore whether different patterns of consumption of food result in different greenhouse gas emissions at the household level.”

Previous research has shown that the resources needed to raise, process and transport meat and animal proteins accumulates more greenhouse gas emissions over the supply chain than food that originates from fruits, vegetables and grains. For example, red meat producing industries generated a total of 21 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from household purchases in 2013, compared to just 11 percent from vegetables/melons.

“We found that households that spend more of their weekly food budget on beef, chicken, pork, and other meats are generating more greenhouse gas emissions,”Boehm said to UConn Today. “Encouraging consumers to make food choices that are lower in greenhouse gas emissions can make a real difference addressing climate change.”

 

Costello has worked on a variety of environmentally-based research projects throughout her career, including several related to food and its environmental impacts. For this study, she provided input-output life cycle assessment (IO-LCA) modeling expertise. Input-output modeling originated in the realm of economics, but is used for sustainability research to illustrate the interdependence of industries in the production of goods. For example, when a frozen meal is purchased by a consumer the producer of that meal purchases ingredients, e.g., beef, potatoes and green beans, and in turn, each farmer has also made purchases, such as fertilizer. IO-LCA allows for the capture of all of these cascading purchases, including packaging, equipment operations, etc., across the supply chain and thus a comprehensive estimate of the associated environmental impact.

“It’s a linear mathematical model that uses these tables that the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis produces that track interaction between industries,” Costello explained. The U.S. started making these I-O tables for wartime planning.”

The main takeaway: If American consumers lessened their purchase of meats and animal proteins, there is a likelihood that it would have a positive net effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

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