Going into my time working with the sustainability program at UMD, I was only vaguely aware of the concept of “foodprints.” I learned that foods and ingredients can be assessed based on the resources that go into their production, and even the logistics involved in their transport from farm to table (or dining hall). We specifically looked at a couple dishes available to students in the UMD dining halls and calculated their carbon and water footprints. It seemed likely that vegan or vegetarian dishes would have smaller footprints, so we compared a meat-based dish with a vegan one. Despite our feeling that meat would increase the footprint of a dish, we were shocked by the extent to which this was true.
The foods we selected to analyze are regularly available in the dining halls on campus: a beef sloppy joe, and a custom-built vegan bowl. The sloppy joe is primarily ground beef, with some vegetables and sauce. Our vegan bowl included brown rice, pumpkin seeds, squash, potatoes and other vegetables. We found resources online to analyze the ingredients for each recipe to calculate the greenhouse gases produced and water needed for each dish. The results are graphed below.
For equivalent serving sizes, the sloppy joe required nearly 3 times as much water, and had a carbon emissions footprint almost 5 times greater than the vegan bowl. This difference is entirely due to the ground beef used to make sloppy joes. Of the ingredients in the vegan bowl, brown rice is the highest cost in terms of carbon footprint. Ground beef has a footprint 8 times greater than brown rice. This makes intuitive sense, given that fewer resources are needed to produce rice than cattle. Still, we found it surprising that the difference was so large.
I had heard of carbon footprints for years, but never spent much time learning about the specifics. This exercise helped me gain a better understanding for its relevance regarding the foods we eat. I personally plan to take the knowledge I’ve gained and use it to inform my food buying habits. Here are links to the resources we used to calculate carbon footprints and water usage, if you would like to analyze your own recipes.