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Food for thought: a student sustainability architect's perspective

Written by Fern Spencer

Sustainability Architects

We all need food. We do not need food in the same way that we need transport or clothes or anything else that makes our lives run a little smoother. Food is necessary for all life. At the same time, a lot of us are showing more and more concern for the planet, with the climate crisis filling our conversations and the media. So perhaps we should be asking ourselves, How does the food on our plate contribute to the climate crisis? What can we do to reduce its impact?

One element of this is greenhouse gas emissions, often measured as Carbon Dioxide  equivalent. But what is a low carbon diet? You’ve probably heard the argument that a plant-based diet has a considerably lower carbon footprint than a meat and dairy diet. In general, this is true. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO, 2013) released an entire report in 2013 titled ‘Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock’. The research revealed that livestock account for 14.5% of our Greenhouse Gas emissions worldwide.

Undoubtedly, reducing our meat consumption would take us one large step further towards a low carbon diet. However, this isn’t the only aspect of our diet we should consider changing. No sustainable solutions are simple because most of today's problems are complex. We need to also consider where our products come from. Are they in season where you are? How far do our fresh fruit and vegetables have to travel to get to us all year round? 

The impact of collective action should also not be overlooked. We don’t all have to cut meat and dairy completely from our diets. Making a few simple and easy meal swaps each week can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our food, if we all work together. 

The Refectory on the University of Leeds campus has already made great steps towards sustainability. There is now a large choice of low carbon meals, with 65% of food being sourced within 40 miles of campus. As one of the universities student sustainability architects, I’m working with the Refectory team to communicate the carbon footprint of food to students and staff. 

We don’t all need to be environmental experts to make planet friendly food choices. Therefore, after researching and brainstorming, we’ve decided to keep the solution simple; it involves marketing and communication elements, at the same time as fitting into the busy daily routine of the Refectory. Hopefully, our solution will be easily understood by everyone who enters the Refectory, making it easier for people to make informed decisions about the food they’re eating. Work has already begun calculating the carbon footprint of different meals, so keep an eye out in the coming months for useful hints and tips on how you can reduce the environmental impact of your plate.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2013. Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. (available at:


Fern Spencer

Student Sustainability Architects