This researcher explores why carbon isn't the only measure of food system sustainability.

Goretty Dias

Across the globe there is an increasing awareness of the unsustainability of our food system. From tracking the carbon footprint of our food, to making choices based on how far food travels before it hits the plate (“food miles”), the movement towards eating a more sustainable diet is a hot topic.

One Faculty of Environment researcher is helping food producers, such as the Canadian beef industry, make choices that are good for the planet and their bottom line, using life cycle assessment to determine environmental impacts.

“When talking about using life cycle assessment of food systems, the best way to think about it is that we consider environmental impacts from ‘farm to fork,’” explains professor Goretty Dias of the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED).

Dias and her research associate, Dr. Kariyapperuma are part of a group of Canadian researchers funded by the Agricultural Greenhouse Gases Program. The funding program represents Canada’s commitment to the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, an international network collaborating on agricultural research on greenhouse gas mitigation and beneficial management practices (BMPs) for farmers in Canada and around the world.

Dias’ research shows that the biggest carbon contribution from beef production is methane and manure emissions from the animals. Dias is looking at BMPs to reduce emissions, such as reducing the amount of time animals are kept inside during the winter.

There are no simple answers though. “This BMP has the potential to reduce carbon emissions, but could also reduce water quality,” Dias says of strategy of keeping animals outside longer.

Although “food miles” and “eating local” have become a popular measure for food’s carbon footprint, her research shows that transportation represents less than 1 per cent of beef’s carbon footprint. “Local might be better for some aspects of sustainability, but maybe not for the carbon footprint,” she says.

When it comes to making choices at the dinner table to reduce carbon footprints, Dias urges us to keep perspective. “What’s most important is the type of food you eat,” she explains. “Eating lentils grown in Saskatchewan is less carbon intensive than eating Ontario beef.”

Ultimately though, Dias says we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket, and advocates for a diverse food system which includes local food, as well as appropriate meat and vegetarian options.

“Carbon is too narrow of a measure when it comes to food system sustainability. We need to support local farmers with viable incomes, so that they can afford to protect and enhance our environment, and produce nutritious food options for a growing population.”