Coconuts Versus The Climate

As an eater of a primarily vegan diet, and with COP26 in the news, I thought it was time to address a challenge that is occasionally thrown down in my direction:

Does the impact of imported vegan alternatives outweigh the environmental benefits of not eating meat?

There many, many angles on this question and I’ll only consider a couple in any detail: food miles and water.

I’m more or less ignoring the significant effects of land use change (chopping down old growth forests to plant oil palm trees is really bad) as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers (which does nasty things to ecosystems). But there we go. I can’t do everything.

Bear in mind, while reading this piece, the following comment from Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Kiwis, lambs and apples

‘Coconuts!’ someone shouted at me last week. ‘Coconuts only grow in the tropics and have to be transported thousands of miles to get to your selfish vegan plate!’

I’m paraphrasing, but it does sound logical that exotic coconut oil (mmm) would have a higher carbon footprint than European alternatives like olive oil.

But it’s not necessarily true, as I’ll demonstrate with a story about lambs and apples.

A famous 2007 study found that lamb from New Zealand had a quarter of the carbon footprint of Welsh lamb, despite travelling 17,840km around the world to our shop shelves.

Obviously, lamb is of little interest to a vegan or even a vegetarian – but the study also found that British apples had carbon emissions almost 50 percent higher than their Kiwi counterparts.

This is so counter-intuitive that, to be honest, it hurts my brain.

An apple a day…

Digging deeper into the data, it turns out that the Kiwi advantage only holds if British eaters want apples all year round. (Which I suspect we do.)

The study authors report that the carbon cost of transporting apples around the world after harvest in the southern hemisphere is almost identical to the carbon cost of putting apples into cold storage for six months after the British harvest.

As well as seeing their local advantage wiped out, the British apples not only suffered from higher pesticide and fertiliser use, but a fuel efficiency per tonne that’s almost four times as profligate as apples from New Zealand.

This means that, even when British apples are in season, the difference in carbon footprint between apples from the two hemispheres is negligible. Astonishing.

Food miles might be an easy metric to measure a food’s environmental impact, but it’s not a very useful one. Local doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet.

(It’s worth saying that the cited report is 14 years old and was published by a New Zealand university. You may also, of course, have considerations beyond environmental impact.)

But what if we’re talking about produce that doesn’t require storage in massive fridges for six months of the year? Surely then we’d be better off eating locally, wouldn’t we?

To answer that question, we’ll go back to our oily death match between the coconut and the olive.

Coconuts versus the climate

According to a 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough at Oxford University, the production of coconut oil creates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of olive oil — and this data takes into account transportation from the tropics.

How can this be true?

Coconuts might come from far away, but – like lambs and apples – they’re transported here by sea, not by air.

That’s an important point because sea freight is so fuel efficient that the last hundred miles, by lorry from port to supermarket, can make up the largest contribution to a commodity’s transportation carbon emissions.

The good news is that almost all of our food is transported to Britain by sea. This is why, on average, transportation counts for only 11 percent of our food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Great. That explains why coconut oil doesn’t come with a hefty carbon pricetag – but it doesn’t explain why olive oil is so bad.

What-a, wat-a, water surprise!

Olive groves, unlike coconut plantations, are incredibly thirsty places and all that water comes with a high carbon pricetag. Boom. That’s why olive oil is so bad compared to coconut oil.

But it’s not just the carbon cost of irrigation that’s makes a high water footprint bad for the environment.

Here in Britain, beef and milk are the main foodie contributors to our water footprint.

You might think that that’s not such a big deal – after all, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with our freshwater supply. I myself can bear soggy witness to another ample delivery only this morning.

But having healthy rainfall doesn’t mean that high beef and dairy consumption don’t cause problems with our water supply.

Pesticides, fertilisers, sewage, farmyard slurry and even waste products like dairy whey all easily find their way into our rivers, causing eutrophication – dangerously high levels of nutrients – that depletes the water of oxygen, suffocating fish and creating a dead zone inhospitable to life.

Fooled by paddy fields

On the other hand, some countries do have a real problem with their supply of freshwater and the effects of climate change are only going to make this worse, leading to desertification if we’re not careful.

This means we should be mindful about the water footprint of the food that we import. Vegans should watch out for olive oil, coffee and chocolate from arid countries.

Surprisingly, rice only sucks up about the same amount of water as wheat. Don’t be fooled by all those sloppy paddy fields.

Nuts typically use a lot of water, but they’re not all completely awful. Almonds and cashews should probably be avoided – especially from regions like California that are suffering from extreme drought.

Shelled nuts are a lot worse with water than unshelled nuts — but who buys unshelled nuts? Chestnuts are great.

Time for a little perspective: in terms of litres per kilocalorie, nuts aren’t much worse than chicken, better than lamb or goat meat and much better than beef.

No, you’re nuts

In fact, nuts often have a carbon negative impact on the atmosphere for the obvious-when-you-think-about-it reason that THEY’RE TREES.

Favour peanuts (AKA groundnuts) and hazelnuts over almonds and pistachios. ‘Pastes’ are more carbon intensive than their wholefood parents, but peanut ‘paste’ is still lighter on the carbon than raw almonds.

Peanuts are also lighter on the water supply. And higher in protein. If you want to slightly reduce your impression, then buy in bulk and make your own peanut butter.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that almonds are still a less water-intensive source of protein and calcium than olives, oats and rice.

Above: The carbon footprint of hazelnut, peanut, pistachio and almond products, including packaging, processing and transportation. Volpe et al (2015)

Or you could simply pick your own acorns. It’s a mast year, after all.

Yeah, but what does all this mean?

When it comes to considering carbon emissions caused by transportation, the only thing we need to worry about is whether our food is transported by air.

For someone living in the UK, a kilo of fresh asparagus from Peru has a higher carbon footprint than a kilo of chicken or pork. Yowzas.

Check your food labels, but a decent rule of thumb is to avoid fresh greens and soft fruit grown abroad.

If asparagus and raspberries are in season in Britain, then fill your boots. If they’re not: don’t eat them — or buy them in season and store them in your freezer.

In terms of your water footprint, vegans could dial down on the almond and cashews and maybe switch out the coffee and chocolate. Substitute with peanuts, tea and, er, locally foraged liberty cap psilocybe mushrooms?

I leave you by once again repeating the words of Joseph Poore, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Published by

David

David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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