Sustaining Food: Cutting the Carbon Footprint of Food Production, Transportation, and Disposal

illustration of corn on a dinner table

Experts from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and School for Environment and Sustainability explain how food production, transportation, and waste contribute to climate change and describe some of the large-scale—and attainable—changes we can make to reduce the impact our food systems have on greenhouse gas emissions.

Listen to "Sustaining Food: Cutting the Footprint of Food Production, Transportation, and Disposal" on Spreaker.

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00:30 Andrew Jones: People don't often think about this, but what we eat and the ways our food is produced has a big impact on climate change. To my mind, climate change is the defining problem of our times. And food systems are such an integral part of this challenge. They are both driving the problem in many different and complex ways, and they're also being affected by the problem. Food systems encompass how food is produced, the way food is processed and stored and transported, the way that it's sold and retailed and consumed. It encompasses so many different behaviors, from the way that individuals act to the way that institutions behave. And therefore there are immense amount of opportunities for intervening through policies and programs to change how institutions and individuals behave to affect this problem.

01:24 Speaker 2: In today's episode, we're talking about how food production, transportation and waste contribute to climate change with experts from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and the School for Environment and Sustainability. We'll also get into some of the large scale and attainable changes that can reduce the impact our food systems have on greenhouse gas emissions.

01:45 S2: Hello and welcome to Population Healthy, a podcast from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Join us as we dig into important public health topics, stuff that affects the health of all of us at a population level. From the microscopic to the macro-economic, the social to the environmental, from neighborhoods to cities, states to countries and around the world.


02:18 S2: Andrew Jones is an associate professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. His work looks at how climate change affects global food systems, how producing food impacts the environment itself, and the ways we can bring food to our tables that have less impact on the environment.

02:34 AJ: So, climate change encompasses lots of complex changes that are occurring globally, generally refers to the gradual warming of our planet, and really what's driving that is the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, largely from human activities, that actually trap heat in the atmosphere and keep it so that we're actually warming gradually and gradually over the decades. Obviously, agriculture uses fossil fuels for things like tractors, and other machinery that we use for growing our food, for producing inorganic fertilizers that are actually manufactured to improve the nutrient content of soils that uses a lot of fossil fuel as well.

03:16 AJ: But one of the big sort of hidden ways that our systems of food production impact climate change is through deforestation and the clearing of trees which serve as carbon sinks, they actually can trap carbon dioxide. When those trees are cut down to make way for land, for new crops, or for grazing and for animals, it releases lots of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, through the trees that are cut down but also through the soils that actually contain a lot of the carbon. That is really a big driver of climate emissions from our food systems.

03:47 AJ: Another really big way that agriculture has impacts on climate change is through rearing cattle. Emissions from cattle themselves, and other ruminant animals like goats, can make a big impact. They actually produce methane through their metabolism of food, so when they're going around grazing, they're actually belching out methane into the atmosphere. And methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon is. And so, deforestation, release of methane from livestock, as well as lots of fossil fuel use, and other things like growing rice in flooded patties, these are all ways that our food systems have impacts on climate change.


04:26 AJ: Well, when we're talking about food systems we're really talking about the systems of not just producing food, but transporting it, storing it, processing it, getting it to consumers through retail outlets, and ultimately the way that consumers use and waste or lose food in the home. So food systems encompass the entirety of food from what we often talk about, cradle to grave, the time it's produced till when it's actually consumed our wasted or lost.

04:52 AJ: So when we think about sustainability, we can, for example, change how we produce food. We can look at ways to reduce the amount of energy that goes into the food production. This could be through using different forms of mechanization or new forms of mechanization. We can look at different ways of using water resources, so that it's more efficient. We can apply practices that we have learned through fields like agro-ecology, which looks at a more system's approach to growing food, looking at ways in which the not just inputs like fertilizers and water and pesticides can be used to increase yields, but looking at the larger ecological context within which food is grown, and understand how to use that local ecology to reduce exposure to pests, to enhance soil fertility and to increase yields without lots of external inputs.

05:45 AJ: So there are lots of technologies we can think about that can help to change the actual process of food production itself. On the flip side, there's the issue of consumer demand and what can consumers do to change what our food systems look like. Obviously, if consumers change what they are demanding from the food system, the food industry and farmers will change their behavior in response to that.

06:00 AJ: I think one really interesting story about how food systems are beginning to change is around the issue of fake meat. We see lots of new products coming online that are looking at ways of mimicking the taste, the look, the texture of actual meat products. Burger King, White Castle, Carl's Junior, these fast food chains have actually entered into contracts with these companies to start producing fake meat products. To me, that's a fascinating step forward in terms of thinking about how to change the food system through large institutions that have a big impact on what people eat.


06:49 S2: At the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, Martin Heller researches the impact of food and agricultural systems on the environment. He has also worked with one of the leaders in the fake meat industry to help them quantify the full impact their product has on the environment using a tool called Life Cycle Assessment.

07:07 Martin Heller: Life Cycle Assessment is essentially an environmental accounting tool, but it's a tool that's based on the understanding that the environmental impact of the goods and services that support our modern society come not just from producing those goods but also by activities that occur upstream from that manufacturing, mining of raw materials or fuels, production of electricity, transportation of all of those things, as well as downstream from the manufacturing. Again, transportation concerns, use of products. If we're thinking about something like an automobile, much of the energy and resources that go into that full life cycle occur at the use phase when we're actually driving the car over its life.

07:58 MH: And then we also need to think about ultimate disposal at the end of life of a product. So the idea here is, in order to really capture the full environmental impacts of using a product, we need to look across that full life cycle to better understand where those impacts are occurring.

08:20 S2: We're at the point now that large organizations can use these life cycle assessments to really scrutinize their food purchases. Then they can make adjustments to lower their overall environmental impact. And that's what Beyond Meat did early on.

08:34 MH: Beyond Meat is active in this plant-based meat alternative space. There are a lot of assumptions that these plant-based meat alternatives have a better environmental performance than the animal-based foods that they are looking to compete against. Beyond Meat was certainly interested in communicating that type of message to consumers, but they were interested in really putting some scientific rigour behind those claims. So we were able to work with Beyond Meat to do a life-cycle assessment and look very closely at the production of their Beyond Burger, which is the plant-based burger that tastes and eats like a beef burger.

09:24 MH: In that study we were able to work with Beyond Meat and very closely look at the ingredients that go into producing the Beyond Burger, along with getting information on the processing stages that they're using and the energy requirements there. We took a look at the packaging that they're using, as well as their current transportation distribution and then compare that against a similar life-cycle assessment of beef production in the US. And the results from that were pretty striking. We found that the Beyond Burger contributed 90% less greenhouse gas emissions but we also looked at other environmental impacts, so 46% less energy use up to 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use.

10:19 MH: So this was a unique study, because there's been a lot of evidence in the past, of the differences between plant commodities, so like the pea protein that is the protein source in the Beyond Burger, we know that producing that on a farm has lower impacts than producing beef itself, but we've seen few examples of actually bringing those ingredients together into a consumer-facing product like the Beyond Burger. So this was an opportunity to really demonstrate that bringing all those ingredients together and processing it still results in a product that has significantly less impact than the animal-based food.


11:03 AJ: The way our food systems look today is not a foregone conclusion. Policies and programs and decisions that have been made, by us, over many decades, have shaped the way our food systems look today. To me, that is encouraging because it means that we can make new decisions, put in place new policies that can remake our food systems in the image that we want them to look like for our future. Another huge way that our food system contributes to climate change is through food loss and waste. If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, behind China and the US.

11:43 AJ: Food loss and waste accounts for more than four gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year. In the United States, most of the food that we waste is at the retail and consumer end of the food system. Because food is so cheap in the United States, we are highly incentivized to use it inefficiently, and so we waste it. If you go to the grocery store you may buy a head of lettuce or a bunch of apples or some other produce and you may not use all of it over the course of a few days, and therefore you throw a lot of it out.

12:14 AJ: In developing countries, most of the food loss and waste that we see is happening at the end of the food system around agricultural production. So, food is grown and it ends up rotting or being stored inefficiently or being transported in such a way that is not kept cool. So we have a lot of waste going on all over the world, but it's happening in very different ways for very different reasons around the world.

12:38 AJ: In the area of sustainable food systems we often look at food waste as being the low-hanging fruit for how we can begin to address carbon emissions from our food system. In any other sector, if you were losing a third or a half of your product there's no way you would stand for that, as a business person. One example of a way you can reduce food loss and waste is through cafeterias and dining halls. Here, at University of Michigan, recently they did away with trays in the dining halls so that students, instead of loading up lots of food onto a tray, will take an individual dish at each station. And therefore when you take less food you're less likely to take too much and then waste it. So it's a very simple change that was made that can have a big impact.


13:28 S2: To make positive changes, there are seemingly simple things large institutions can do. And for institutions, it starts with champions like Patty Ramos. She is an alumna of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a lecturer there, where she shares her experience as a food procurement manager at large organizations.

13:44 Patty Ramos: Greening the environment and greening food-source operations has kinda always been a passion of mine. I was actually thinking about why I enjoyed doing that, or why it's so ingrained me, and when I was thinking about that I was thinking back when I was growing up. And I grew up in a single parent home, and my mom would be very savvy on saving food and making sure that it would last a long time. So we would do strategies like freeze our milk in little containers, or we would freeze loaves of bread and take out a slice when we needed it. We would wash Ziploc bags, which actually we got from my Nani, who grew up in the Depression. So it actually... I do these things to this day, and when friends come to my house they see the labs drying and they think I'm weird, but it's truly a part of me. So when I was in food service manager roles I automatically thought, "What can we do to make our operation more sustainable?"

14:34 PR: I was the Food Service Director for Borgess-Lee, which is a critical access hospital in a small town called Dowagiac, Michigan. It was an excellent place because we had so little waste to begin with and we had such a strong control on our waste already, because of the size of our facility. We also had a really small staff. They had been there a long time, some have been there 10, 20, 30 years. So a lot of longevity, not much turnover. So when my wheels started turning on what I could implement to improve sustainability, my mind immediately went to composting. I bought a composter online, I developed a training program for my team, and I was able to train that small team on what they could deviate to the composter and what they couldn't.

15:14 PR: So, things like vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, eggshells, all those things could go into the composter. Slowly but surely we were able to create dirt in that composter. Once we made dirt we were able to put it into flower beds in the garden on site. So it was great that we didn't have to emit any greenhouse gases to transport that dirt somewhere else.

15:33 PR: Once we filled our composter I had to solve the next problem, "How are we gonna keep diverting this waste so we just don't stop our program that we started?" And I did a quick Google search and, lo and behold, there was a hog farm in Decatur, which is between Kalamazoo and Dowagiac. So I connected with that farmer and he was agreeable to come to our facility bi-weekly. So we were able to divert everything that couldn't go in the composter to these hogs. We could divert bread, meats, oils and fats could go to them as well, because they will eat anything.

16:04 S2: When Ramos moved to a larger health organization in Metro Detroit, she realized her homegrown composting operation wouldn't scale. But by thinking critically about community needs, she was able to devise a new food waste diversion strategy.

16:17 PR: It's important to realize that when you're implementing a food waste diversion strategy that you're being realistic and you're being flexible with the team that you have, and you're implementing something that's going to stick. So instead of composting at Providence Southfield, we noticed that there's a lot of food banks in the area, and Fish and Loaves is a food bank that's right across the street. So we connected with them and we were having a lot of waste from our cafeteria specifically, so we were able to devise a strategy where we took food that could easily be frozen and be re-heated and still be delicious and nutritious. We froze that food and we worked with two men and a truck to bring that food to Fish and Loaves on a bi-weekly basis.

16:58 PR: What's hard to do with a sustainable program implementing food waste reduction strategies and operation is getting everyone on board. So it took a lot of convincing of my staff. A lot of them were very skeptical. I always would say, with my teams, that if something isn't working or it's creating more work for us, we can always go back to the way things were. So I think that's important when you're leading a team and leading change like this. So I slowly got them on board, and they were able to see that they were making connection with their community, and their environment, and having a positive impact.


17:37 AJ: When we look at food systems, one of the main characteristics we find within them is inequity. We see imbalances and food that's available in highly developed countries versus more developing countries. We see inequity in terms of who is experiencing symptoms of malnutrition. We see inequity in terms of the resources that are available to do something about the problem. And when we look at climate change, the story is the same. Those countries that are responsible for the bulk of the emissions are higher-income countries, like the United States and Western Europe. Yet those countries that are facing the most dire consequences of climate change are lower-income countries, especially in the tropics. We anticipate that yields of many key staple crops, like corn and rice and wheat, are likely to go down in many of the tropical countries that are also happen to be more lower-income countries.

18:33 AJ: Whereas in some of the higher latitudes, the yields of some of these crops are actually anticipated to go up with climate change and increase. We see the pole-ward migration of fish away from tropical regions where fisheries are really, really important for the livelihoods of many, many communities. At the same time the nutritional impacts of climate change through the food system are likely to be the most dire in developing countries as well, where we already see the highest numbers of individuals with food insecurity, with under-nutrition, with micronutrient deficiencies.

19:08 AJ: And so, the negative impacts of climate change are going to be multiple-fold in these lower income areas. So, equity is a really big part of the story for how we think about the impacts of climate change through the food system. Restructuring our food systems, to make them more sustainable, is perhaps the most promising way to simultaneously address public health, equity, and environmental issues. If we take the example of shifting towards more agro-ecological approaches to agriculture where we think not just about increasing yields but looking at the entire ecosystem within which food is produced, that lens accounts not just for improving the productivity of crops, which it certainly does tend to that, through concerns around soil fertility and pest management, but it also looks at the farmer herself and her ability to earn a living wage, and her ability to access healthy foods, and her ability to take care of her family.

20:10 AJ: Sustainability and approaches that seek to enhance sustainability food systems can, by their nature, look across multiple outcomes in a way that our industrial food system model looks strictly at just profits or just at yields, in a very narrow way.


20:29 AJ: When we discuss climate change, I think we often feel powerless to change this incredibly complex global phenomenon. And in many ways the solutions we need are going to come from governments and international cooperation around big things like energy use. But that said, there are individual actions that we can take that can have an impact. As a family or individual, the top three things you can do to lower your carbon footprint would be to drive less in your car, hop on fewer flights, and change how you eat. All of these things are important, but we often underestimate the impact our diet can have on carbon emissions. High carbon diets actually are responsible for nearly three times the carbon emissions of a household's average electricity usage, or it's average personal vehicle usage. So it really is a major factor that we need to consider when we look at our own individual or family carbon footprints.


21:33 S2: This is our final episode of Population Healthy for this season. We hope you've enjoyed it and learned a lot along the way. If this is your first episode, be sure to check us out wherever you listen to podcasts to learn more about public health topics from tracking epidemics, to mobile health, to improving well-being for moms and their babies. We'll be back in the summer of 2020, with more episodes on pressing public health topics. In the meantime, follow us on social media, at UMICHSPH to learn more about public health. You can also check out the show notes on our website, for more resources about the topics discussed in today's episode. If you want to stay up to date with the latest research and expertise for Michigan Public Health, subscribe to our Population Healthy newsletter, at


In This Episode

Andy JonesAndy Jones

Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Andy’s research examines the relationships between food systems, sustainability and healthy diets. He currently leads projects in Ghana, Vietnam, Kenya, and Peru examining how biodiversity within agricultural systems influences healthy diets, and how food value chains and food environments affect the diets and health status of vulnerable communities. Learn more.

Martin HellerMartin Heller

Research Specialist at the Center for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Michigan

Martin’s primary work involves looking at the environmental impact of food and agricultural systems.

Patti RamosPatti Ramos

Lecturer in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Patti has been a Registered Dietitian for over 7 years, with experience focusing on clinical inpatient and outpatient medical nutrition therapy as well as food service management. She has an interest in the "greening" of food service departments and has developed programs to reduce operational food waste. Learn more.

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