Can Food Be Carbon Neutral?
Making sense of a new kind of claim
More consumers than ever want to help minimize greenhouse gas emissions when it comes to feeding themselves and their families, especially when they see the realities of food’s contribution to the climate crisis.
Around 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the food system according to a study presented at COP26 in Glasgow by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). At the same time, there’s a new focus on the importance of reducing methane emissions — an outsized portion of which come from agriculture and waste.
In response, food companies are making commitments to climate action and working to communicate the impacts of their production. Some, like Oatly and Unilever (which owns brands like Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s), are printing carbon footprints on packages. Others, like General Mills and Cargill, are promising to transition farmland within their supply chain to organic and regenerative production.
But one area that’s really picking up steam is the “neutral zone” — companies that make commitments to reaching “net-zero” emissions by a certain date or claim their production is carbon- or climate-neutral now.
It’s not a clear path. “I've never once talked to a company that has a 2030 [absolute emissions] reduction target and knows how they're going to get there,” said Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral Certified, which certifies brands as net-zero. “So, we require companies to kind of compensate along the way.”
Compensation is in the form of carbon offsets, which are at the core of all “net-zero” or “neutral” climate plans and promises. Essentially, brands put money into projects like tree planting that take carbon out of the atmosphere in an amount equal to their own emissions. Whitman sees offsetting as the most immediate action companies can take while they work on the more difficult work of truly reducing emissions throughout their supply chains, but others say the framework is problematic on several fronts.
“What ‘net-zero’ does is provide some loopholes for companies to basically continue what they're doing with some tweaks, and, in fact, potentially increase emissions,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. And carbon-neutral claims in the press and on packaging could confuse consumers who have educated themselves on the emissions intensity of various food groups, from beans to beef.
“The concept of net-zero was devised by scientists to talk about the entire planet, where 95 percent of the work we have to do is reduce emissions, and maybe a couple of percentage points could be us adding new carbon sinks above and beyond what nature already does,” said Jon Foley, founder of Project Drawdown. “When I look at corporate commitments, they're usually flipped around. Like, we're doing about 95 percent on an offset scheme...and I'm actually not really doing a hell of a lot to reduce my emissions. And the math doesn't add up.”
Foley said the evidence on whether offsets really bring worldwide emissions down is not there. Trees planted as offsets, for example, can be chopped down or burned in wildfires, releasing the carbon they were supposed to hold. The science on carbon sequestration in soil — specifically how much can be stored and for how long — is far from concrete. And mechanical carbon capture methods are still in development. If big food companies all decided to offset their emissions, there simply wouldn’t be enough ways to do so, he said.
The use of offsets could also make a food company’s impact look much better than it is, Lilliston said. Take JBS, for example, which is the world’s largest meat company and pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. The company’s commitment includes metrics to reduce some emissions from within its supply chain and to eliminate deforestation. But it has made similar promises before. Deforestation is the number one cause of emissions from agriculture, and industrial beef is the most climate-intensive food on the planet.
So while the company and others like it — Canadian meat giant Maple Leaf Foods made a similar pledge last year — may be taking some positive steps, the idea that their production is carbon-neutral may skew how we think about the intensity of industrial meat versus other food options. Chickpeas, lentils, or grits from a company that didn’t make a net-zero commitment are still going to be much lower impact choices, for example.
The better idea is to just produce less meat, but JBS and Maple Leaf aren’t going to be advocating for that. “If we cut beef consumption in half [in the U.S.], half the emissions just went away. That's a guarantee,” Foley said. (Many small-scale regenerative beef producers do advocate for less meat production and consumption overall.)
Global meat companies are one thing, but what if a small food company that’s already producing low-impact foods commits to carbon neutrality? That’s the reality for most of the 51 food brands that have signed on to be Climate Neutral Certified so far.
“Thanks to the companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell who are aggressively offsetting, people have basically learned that offsets are a great way for companies to change nothing about their business and then claim to be carbon neutral,” Whitman said. “I think of it as: Something as simple as a pen can be used for writing an essay or poking somebody's eyes out. And it's the exact same instrument.”
In his mind, Climate Neutral Certified brands are going beyond companies that are only sharing emissions numbers on food items. They’re not just reporting what their emissions are; they can’t be certified until they’ve actually committed to some level of action. Brands use a tool to first quantify emissions throughout their entire supply chain, commit to offsetting the emissions number that results, and then must set real emissions reduction goals. Recertification is required each year, and while the organization doesn’t formally audit every application, it acts like the IRS by evaluating applications based on industry data and looking for red flags. “It becomes the beginning of a process where they can then build their plans [for emissions reductions], and as better information becomes available...they can start to switch to more responsible suppliers,” Whitman said, “but in the meantime, they are using their profits to in some way help accelerate the overall shift.”
Think Bread Alone, a bakery that has always made bread with organic grains in energy-efficient ovens but wants to reduce its footprint, or Fetzer, a California wine producer that is already zero waste and powered by 100 percent renewable energy in its winery but is committing to reducing emissions from farm machinery. In the meantime, both have invested tens of thousands of dollars in offsets. What the Climate Neutral Certified tag, in particular, can tell you, then, is that a company is putting real money into improving its climate metrics and is offering up transparency throughout that process.
What no carbon-neutral or climate-neutral or net-zero promise from a food company can tell you is whether whatever food is wrapped up in that package is more or less climate-intensive than another food without that label. That handy chart that explains the intensity of one food group compared to another still applies.
While companies are zeroing in on emissions metrics because of the severity of the climate crisis, most of what experts say is the best plan for eating for the planet is the same boring stuff they’ve been saying for decades: Not to obsess over tons of carbon but to eat mostly plants that are minimally processed. When you do eat beef or lamb, choose regeneratively grazed. Opt for organic, because there’s decent evidence it’s better for climate, and it also has other benefits.
At the end of the day, Foley said, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, specifically, at mealtimes, the most effective things you can do are to limit your beef intake and to waste as little as possible. “By far,” he said, “nothing else can touch it.”