World Environment Day – Think.Eat.Save – The carbon perspective

by Harsha Yadav

Happy World Environment Day – 2013. Yes, to all the sceptics and realists, there is nothing much to be happy about the state of environment the way it is now. But having said that, World Environment Day, just like many other days like AIDS or Cancer Awareness days, highlight the cause and what we can do to help the cause.


This year’s theme is all about Food sustainability and how the food choices we make are affecting the planet. And we are not talking about shark fin soup or Iceland killing whales to make Japanese pet food or any exotic animals under threat due to our food habits and beliefs. We’re talking about our everyday food choices like the veggies you eat or the meat and dairy products you consume. So how do our food habits affect the planet.

Lets take it from the top then:

If I don’t exist, I don’t need food to eat. If I don’t need to eat, someone (a farmer) else doesn’t need to produce that food. If a farmer doesn’t need to produce that food, he/she doesn’t need to cultivate some portion of fertile land. If the fertile land is not cultivated, it will have a forest or have an eco-system that is natural to that region. And forests are one of the biggest carbon sinks in the world as you all would know.

So, Every piece of agricultural land in use has displaced a potential carbon sink that could remove some amount of GHG gases from the atmosphere and combat climate change.

Now, to produce food, you need multiple inputs like land (soil), water, seeds, energy, fertilisers and human effort among others. All these inputs have some embodied energy or energy that has been spent to bring them at that particular place at that particular time.


Water – Is either pumped from the river and drawn to a canal and from the canal to the field. All this needs energy – electrical or mechanical.

Here is the table of how much water is required to produce some of the basic food that we consume:

Typical values for the volume of water required to produce common foodstuffs
Foodstuff  Quantity  Water consumption, litres 
Chocolate 1 kg 17,196
Beef 1 kg 15,415
Sheep Meat 1 kg 10,412
Pork 1 kg 5,988
Butter 1 kg 5,553
Chicken meat 1 kg 4,325
Cheese 1 kg 3,178
Olives 1 kg 3,025
Rice 1 kg 2,497
Cotton 1 @ 250g 2,495
Pasta (dry) 1 kg 1,849
Bread 1 kg 1,608
Pizza 1 unit 1,239
Apple 1 kg 822
Banana 1 kg 790
Potatoes 1 kg 287
Milk 1 x 250ml glass 255
Cabbage 1 kg 237
Tomato 1 kg 214
Egg 1 no. 196
Wine 1 x 250ml glass 109
Beer 1 x 250ml glass 74
Tea 1 x 250 ml cup 27
Source: IME

Seeds – Gone are the days when farmers used to produce their own seeds from their existing crops and use it for the next crop. With the advent of corporate seed manufacturing companies and GMO seeds, they can be used once, they cannot reproduce. One seed, one crop. And seed production consumes a lot of energy while processing. The argument against GMO is for another day, but all we want to say is even production of seeds to grow your food consumes a lot of energy.

Fertilisers – DAP, Urea and other fertilisers have a carbon footprint of 6 – 12 kgs of CO2e for every 1 kg of fertiliser.  Now that’s a large footprint.

Now that the argument is built, for every kg of food that you waste, you are not just wasting that food but also the virtual water, the embodied energy that was necessary to produce that and the human effort required. And we are not calculating the footprint for inputs that come in during the transport of food from the market to your home, the energy used while cooking and everything else in between.  For example:

If I waste a kg of rice – I am wasting approximately 2500 litres of water and generating 900 gms of CO2. This is equivalent to 10 days of freshwater consumption in India and driving your car for 5 kms or running a 20W CFL light bulb for 50 hours!

Now that’s some wastage I never though of! You can do the math for other food stuff as well using this logic.

So does that mean we should just pop some pills for our energy and let the entire farming collapse? NO – DEFINITELY NOT!

All UNEP guys (and we) are saying is that you need to be aware of the food choices that you make – THINK

Keep your food consumption in balance – EAT

& Do not waste any food – SAVE!

Save not just in money terms but also on water and energy terms. The Saving being advocated here is not just at the household level but across the entire supply chain.

From social perspective as well, it is just shameful to waste food when an estimated one in seven people in the world go to bed hungry and more than 20,000 children under the age of five die daily from hunger.

Share your thoughts on how we can cut down on food wastage – throughout the supply chain and share some activities that are pioneering the food saving activity.

We thought this initiative called ‘Share My Dabba’ is fantastic. It’s piggybacking on the well established Mumbai Dabbawala distribution chain online and bridging the gap between food waste and hunger.

As always, your comments will be highly appreciated.

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