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Calculating the carbon cost of food

Press release

A calculator which could reduce the level of carbon emissions generated by food production and consumption has been developed by data scientists at the University of Leeds.

The calculator, which is being trialled by Leeds City Council’s school meals provider, makes it easier for food venues and caterers to estimate the carbon footprint, land use, and water use of meals based on their ingredients.

We should try and consider where certain foods come from, how processed they are, or whether it is in season.

Alexandra Dalton, Leeds Institute for Data Analytics

Around 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions can be linked to the food we eat or waste, with every part of the journey from farm to fork contributing to its overall environmental impact.

Alexandra Dalton carried out the research at the University’s Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA) and the Consumer Data Research Centre. She said: “When we buy food, we don’t often think about where it has come from, or the environmental impact of the food supply chain.

“Small changes to our diets, such as eating more fruit, vegetables, and plant-based products make a difference. However, we should also try and consider where certain foods come from, how processed they are, or whether it is in season.”

Researchers at CDRC have also been engaging with young people in local primary schools through special food data science lessons, workshops, and even creating an interactive and educational Planet Plates game.

Reducing carbon footprint

The initiative is part of a new collaboration between Leeds City Council, the University and FoodWise Leeds, which aims to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

The partnership is working on several new projects designed to tackle climate change by making it easier for residents and organisations to make informed food choices, support more sustainable food production, and reduce food waste.

Catering Leeds is using the new tool to review its school meal menus and suppliers with a view to supporting the local authority’s climate targets. Last year, Leeds City Council set out its ambition to halve the carbon footprint of the average meal it serves by 2030.

Meanwhile, FoodWise Leeds – a citywide partnership with representatives from third sector, academia, businesses and the council – has used the calculator’s findings to show the impact of simple, nutritious, and affordable recipes published on its new online Recipe Hub. It is believed to be the first recipe hub to include carbon calculation.

Councillor Helen Hayden, Executive Member for Infrastructure and Climate at Leeds City Council, said: “The food we eat is responsible for a significant proportion of our carbon footprint, so we believe it is important to lead by example to reduce the impact of the food we serve, whilst empowering others to do the same.

“This new collaboration with the University of Leeds and FoodWise is a brilliant example of how working together can help us realise our ambitions for a healthier and greener city.”

Sonja Woodcock, Sustainable Food Places Coordinator at FoodWise Leeds, said: “I’m really excited to be building on our existing partnership with the University of Leeds and Leeds City Council with this new collaboration.

“The Leeds Recipe Hub is an innovative resource that will enable community groups and individuals to search, try, and share nutritious, tasty, and affordable recipes—whilst helping people to better understand the environmental impact of their food choices.”

Each of the organisations in the new partnership, plus many others, have also contributed to the creation of the first city-wide food strategy currently in development. The new Leeds Food Strategy will be published in draft form and will open to consultation later this month.

Further information

For further details, contact Kersti Mitchell in the University of Leeds press office via