Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products

Michael Clark, Marco Springmann, Mike Rayner, Peter Scarborough, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Jennie I. Macdiarmid, Jessica Fanzo, Lauren Bandy, Richard A. Harrington

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations

Abstract

Understanding and communicating the environmental impacts of food products is key to enabling transitions to environmentally sustainable food systems [El Bilali and Allahyari, Inf. Process. Agric. 5, 456–464 (2018)]. While previous analyses compared the impacts of food commodities such as fruits, wheat, and beef [Poore and Nemecek, Science 360, 987–992 (2018)], most food products contain numerous ingredients. However, because the amount of each ingredient in a product is often known only by the manufacturer, it has been difficult to assess their environmental impacts. Here, we develop an approach to overcome this limitation. It uses prior knowledge from ingredient lists to infer the composition of each ingredient, and then pairs this with environmental databases [Poore and Nemecek Science 360, 987–992 (2018); Gephart et al., Nature 597, 360–365 (2021)] to derive estimates of a food product’s environmental impact across four indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential. Using the approach on 57,000 products in the United Kingdom and Ireland shows food types have low (e.g., sugary beverages, fruits, breads), to intermediate (e.g., many desserts, pastries), to high environmental impacts (e.g., meat, fish, cheese). Incorporating NutriScore reveals more nutritious products are often more environmentally sustainable but there are exceptions to this trend, and foods consumers may view as substitutable can have markedly different impacts. Sensitivity analyses indicate the approach is robust to uncertainty in ingredient composition and in most cases sourcing. This approach provides a step toward enabling consumers, retailers, and policy makers to make informed decisions on the environmental impacts of food products.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2120584119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume119
Issue number33
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 16 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank Jessica Renzella, Kaitlin Kimmel, Joseph Poore, and E.J. Milner-Gulland for their comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. This research was made possible through support from the Wellcome Trust, Our Planet Our Health (Livestock, Environment and People [LEAP]), award no. 205212/Z/16/Z. P.S. and R.A.H. are supported by the National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at Oxford (IS-BRC-1215-20008). P.S. is funded by a British Heart Foundation fellowship (FS/15/34/31656). J.I.M. is supported by funding by from the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services, Scottish Government.

Funding Information:
We thank Jessica Renzella, Kaitlin Kimmel, Joseph Poore, and E.J. Milner-Gulland for their comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. This research was made possible through support from the Well-come Trust, Our Planet Our Health (Livestock, Environment and People [LEAP]), award no. 205212/Z/16/Z. P.S. and R.A.H. are supported by the National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at Oxford (IS-BRC-1215-20008). P.S. is funded by a British Heart Foundation fellowship (FS/15/34/31656). J.I.M. is supported by funding by from the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services, Scottish Government.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.

Keywords

  • ecolabelling
  • environmental impact of food
  • food system sustainability

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

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