Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Research Reveals the True Cost of a Burger

Tan Xue Wen, Rayner(21) S3-02

Research Reveals the True Cost of a Burger

The UK could considerably reduce its carbon footprint if more of us switched to a vegetarian diet, according to new research by Lancaster University.
The report 'Relative greenhouse gas impacts of realistic dietary choices' published in the journal Energy Policy says that if everyone in the UK swapped their current eating habits for a vegetarian or vegan diet, our greenhouse gas emissions savings would be the equivalent of a 50 per cent reduction in exhaust pipe emissions from the entire UK passenger car fleet or 40m tonnes.
From biscuits and bananas to beer and wine, everything in our shopping basket comes at a cost to the environment and each stage of food production -- from farming and transport to storage and packaging -results in greenhouse gas emissions.
By working out the typical greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of 61 different categories of food, using supermarket data supplied by Booths, the authors of the report, Professor Nick Hewitt of Lancaster University and Mike Berners-Lee of Small World Consulting, were able to work out the typical emissions associated with a number of different diets.
They worked out that the combined greenhouse gas emissions from the foods we eat in the UK are the equivalent of 167 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and switching to vegetarian or vegan diets could cut this by between 22 and 26 per cent.
Fresh meat had the highest emissions of all, but meat and cheese had generally high greenhouse gas costs. These emissions were largely caused by methane from rumination, slurry and farm yard manure and nitrous oxide from fertilizer. Meat has a carbon footprint at the checkout of 17kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram. Cheese has 15kg. Cooked meats are also high at 11kg per kilogram, with bacon at 9kg.
Exotic vegetables and mushrooms are high (9kg), largely because of freight and glasshouse heating costs. In contrast, fruit and vegetables grown without artificial heating and/ or were shipped to the UK by sea, have low emissions. Wine has a carbon footprint of 2kg per kilogram, and potatoes, apples, milk, bread and cereals are under 2kg.
Professor Nick Hewitt said: "Greenhouse gases resulting from man's activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, ultimately, with effects on global climate. It is clear that in order to meet the ambitious emissions reductions targets agreed in the UK and elsewhere, emissions from every possible source category have to be addressed and driven down. Food production, particularly by industrialised agricultural practices, causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. Realistic choices about diet can make substantial differences to embodied GHG emissions."

It is amazing how little details of our lives such as the food we eat can impact the environment so greatly. It just goes to show how delicate our eco-system is and how the more important for us to take even greater care of it.
This article also brings up another point, the power of numbers. How such a simple thing as food can cause such a big butterfly effect is due to the numbers(of people eating and number of factories, food demand and etc.) causing a domino effect.
The third point is that a simple thing such as a burger has so many hidden processing. First there’s the bread. The bread. Needs flour, sesame seeds, eggs, butter, yeast and etc. Flour comes from growing wheat, and grinding it. Some factories use machines to grind, contributing to green-house gas emmisions. Sesame seeds also need to be grown. Eggs farmed from chickens and butter processed from the milk of the cow, which has by-products of methane, animal slurry and other pollution contributing substances form animals. And yeast…… the list just goes on and on. And that’s just the bread alone. There is still the bugger patty, the onions, the cheese, the lettuce, the tomato and depending on your type of burger there could be other ingredients as well.


  1. Wow! This article actually shows the Domino effect, whereby the little things that we eat can affect the fate of the environment, little by little, the carbon emissions piles up and eventually it is significant enough to affect a change in our fragile environment. Thats why, scientist are improving on genetic modification so that the food source are more hardy, or grows faster, or are able to provide the necessary nutrients needed for the body to function. Then there is overexploitation whereby the exploiters may wipe out an entire species just for the sake of men, and overpopulation whereby the the effect just makes a larger of an impact on the environment.

  2. As you and Jun Hong have pointed out, this is an excellent example of the Butterfly or the Domino effect that most of us would simply be ignorant to. It is rather surprising to me that a simple change in our lifestyles could potential bring about a drastic and significant change in our environment, potentially slowing down the effects of global warming. However, this would be rather a rather difficult change to bring about in society as it is almost impossible or highly unlikely, that anyone would give up their glorious meat to save the environment. After all, we are all individuals at the end of the day. Moreover, seeing the problems that the younger generation have with eating vegetables purely based on their own choice does not give me much hope that many people would be willing to invoke a positive change to the environment.

    Lucas Chia

  3. Rayner has thought through and "digested" the entire article thoroughly. Well done! However, must we switch to a vegetarian diet to reduce our carbon footprint? Is it the only way? If we are to follow nature, humans eat both vegetables and meat. There are many other ways to reduce our carbon footprint such as having less cars on the road, less pollution production in factories, reduction in smoking and so on. However, if they still insist on trying to find a way to reduce our carbon footprint in the food industry, then they can try and find ways to reduce carbon emissions in transport (if we do so, then we would have the answer to environmentally friendly cars), reduce carbon emissions in processing (can be done if they use less chemicals) etc.

    In my opinion, we should not turn ourselves into vegetarians as there are other ways (which produces more carbon) which we can reduce our carbon footprint. We only need to do this if there is not other options left to us (which is highly unlikely).

  4. This really puts things into perspective. It shows how the most trivial of things we use/eat are made via huge industrial means. The article also enlightened me on the fact that our carbon foot prints are not solely made by the cars we drive or the electricity we use. All the food we eat, all the water we drink have all been through processing. Through farms, factories, cargo ships, supermarkets and finally into the hands of the consumer. All the things we enjoy are at the expense of our environment. My teacher constantly tells me, if we plant a tree for every paper we throw away, the world would be a greener place. The true answer to environmental problems is not all the technological solutions, rather the human drive to change. If humans are willing to change for the better, if humans are willing to take that step back, anything can be done. It would not be a surprise if our carbon emissions reduce to a statistical value lower than ever before. It would not be a surprise if pollution is reversed and the once devastated land will flourish into a green prairie. It would not be a surprise if better ways of living in harmony with nature yet achieving the same efficiency as we are enjoying comes to pass. It all ties down to the human drive. If we want to, we'll make it happen.