Summer has finally arrived. Sunny days and brighter evenings are the perfect opportunity to gather friends and family and fire up the barbecue. But, while we all enjoy eating outdoors, it's important to stop and think about the impact your meal could have on the planet.
The global food system (the production, processing and distribution of the world's food) has a substantial environmental footprint. In fact, it accounts for nearly one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Research that I co-authored in 2020 suggests that the way you cook your food plays a significant role in these emissions.
We also looked into the environmental impact of barbecues. A typical barbecue for four people releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than a 170-mile car journey.
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But instead of cancelling the party, here are five things you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your barbecue.
1. Offer an alternative to beef burgers
The easiest way to cut the carbon footprint of your barbecue is to think beyond familiar staples like beef burgers. Research from 2018 found that producing a medium-sized beef burger (100g) generates the equivalent of 3,750g of CO₂ - the same amount that is released by driving 15 miles in a fossil fuel-powered car. This is mostly due to the methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) emitted by cows when they burp and the greenhouse gases that are released as their manure decomposes.
By switching to chicken, you can reduce the environmental impact of your menu. The same research found that producing 100g of chicken (a small chicken breast) is associated with the equivalent of 870g of CO₂ - the same as driving 3.5 miles in a car.
An even better way to lower your barbecue's environmental footprint is to plan a vegan menu. If you replace beef burgers with vegan sausages, butter with vegetable spread and avoid pouring cream on your strawberries, you can cut the emissions of your four person barbecue from the equivalent of over 40,000g of CO₂ to just over 10,000g of CO₂.
2. Put plants on the menu
Many animals eat several times as many calories as they provide to us when eaten. A calf, for example, eats over 40,000 calories each day, but only a mere 2% of these calories are retained in the form of beef. This is one of the reasons why plant-based alternatives are associated with lower emissions.
Beans (in salads or even in the form of a burger) are an excellent ingredient to use as part of your barbecue instead. They are a source of protein and legumes (beans, lentils and peas) take nitrogen out of the air as they grow and convert it into a form that the plant can use. These crops therefore require the addition of less fertiliser to help them grow.
3. Ditch charcoal
The way you cook your food has a substantial impact on emissions. Our aforementioned research found that home cooking accounts for up to 61% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. This is because of the varying emission levels associated with different cooking methods and appliances.
Barbecue purists might swear by charcoal. But the energy used to produce charcoal usually comes from burning fossil fuels. One study suggests that the emissions from producing and burning a 500g bag of charcoal equate to around 5,000g of CO₂.
Using a gas barbecue or cooking your food in the kitchen under the grill is instead associated with the equivalent of just 200g of CO₂ emissions. Slow cookers have a comparatively low environmental footprint too. So, if you have one and are cooking meat anyway, think about serving up a dish like pulled pork.
4. Don't forget the drinks
Drinks are also an important part of your barbecue. But they too can have a negative impact on the environment.
When it comes to drinks - soft or alcoholic - think about packaging. A bottle of beer alone is responsible for almost half a kilogram of greenhouse gas emissions - more than a quarter of which come from making and transporting the glass bottle.
Choosing larger drinks containers is a simple solution. If you think you're going to get through a lot of beer, then a barrel or keg could be a good option. For soft drinks - again buy in big containers, recycle cans and bottles and remember, tap water has the lowest emissions of all.
5. Cut food waste
But it's relatively easy to plan a waste-free barbecue. Have some sandwich bags or containers to hand to take away any leftovers. You won't have to feel guilty about throwing away food and your guests can save money on lunch the following day.
If you do have leftover food that you can't give away (think burned sausages), then add it to your food waste bin for collection if you have one, which is better than sending it to landfill.
The global food system is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and it's important we consider the climate impact of our meals. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a barbecue this summer. By making small changes to the food we buy and how we cook it, we can enjoy barbecues while being mindful of our planet.
Author: Sarah Bridle - Professor of Food, Climate and Society, University of York