Cooking up a Storm: How environmentally impactful are your meals?

The food we eat is responsible for around 25% of the UK’s entire carbon footprint, with agriculture causing around 14.5% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. In today’s age, we are certainly aware of our carbon footprint and we all play a part in attempting to reduce the emissions we produce, from using public transport, to recycling our household waste. People are also becoming more conscious of what they are eating, as transparency in food manufacturing becomes increasingly clearer. In recent years, veganism has increased by 600%, and a main reason for the diet, which eliminates all animal products, is environmental concerns.

However, we often don’t consider how our carbon footprint increases due to home cooking, and there is another way that we can watch what we eat in an environmentally conscious way.

In order to measure the carbon footprint of various home-cooked meals, Text Mining Solutions has been collaborating with GGDOT (Greenhouse Gas and Dietary choice Open source Toolkit) and the University of Sheffield. The project has allowed us to develop a method that involves the consideration of ingredients and preparation methods using text mining.

In order to collect the data, the Green House Gas Equivalent (GHGE) and Calories per portion were calculated by applying a text mining software to extract ingredients and quantities from BBC Good Food recipes. This information is then combined to calculate an overall figure for the recipes’ carbon footprint, in an attempt to understand the environmental impact of the food we are eating.

Just like many text mining projects, some interesting challenges arose during the POC (proof of concept) and were successfully overcome by incorporating additional software. For example, deriving a mass value from ingredients such as ‘a pinch of salt’ or ‘a handful of sunflower seeds’ isn’t easily gaged. Using supplementary software meant that the team were able to establish the masses of certain ingredients, that weren’t originally clear.

The long-term aim of this incredible project is to introduce a trend line that can demonstrate how diet, culture and carbon footprints have changed over time. In the future, the analysis can also be rolled out internationally, allowing us to compare the UK findings with a country of different culture and lifestyle.

The project may also be extended to investigating the change in shopping habits during the COVID-19 pandemic and how lockdown has affected the carbon footprint generated from our meals. When restaurants closed and specific ingredients became difficult to get our hands on, many people turned to local businesses. 30% of shoppers supported small and local businesses more than before, while 43% said they were buying fewer takeaways due to contamination risks meaning they were cooking far more meals at home. According to Hubbub, 25% also said that they were purchasing better quality ingredients as they were saving money from staying in. These shopping habits will have an incremental effect on how our food travels from the land to our plates, suggesting a visible change in the GGHE produced. Furthermore, it is questionable whether these changes will be a short-term trend or will last for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps very soon when we’re scouring the internet for last minute dinner ideas, GHGE will be just as transparent as calories and cooking time…