The inconvenient truth…about convenience

An interview with Adisa Azapagic

As our lives have become seemingly ever busier and more exhausting, we have become more and more reliant on the innovations of convenience that save us precious time and effort when feeding ourselves and our loved ones.

Innovations such as supermarkets, microwaves and ready meals.

In the UK, we eat more ready meals than any other country in Europe, spending £2.6bn on them each year* - that’s twice as much as France and six times more than Spain.

And with the quality and range of these pre-prepared meals improving by the day, it’s hard to dispute their attraction.

After all, at the end of a long and tiring day, who would say no to a mouthwatering lasagne or a delicious lamb curry, piping hot and ready to eat in a matter of minutes.

But convenience comes at a cost.

In the UK, we eat more ready meals than any other country in Europe, spending £2.6bn on them each year

It’s long been understood that cooking and eating homemade food with fresh ingredients is healthier than eating ready meals and now we’re also beginning to appreciate the impact these chilled meals have on the environment.

On the whole, home cooking requires shorter distribution chains and refrigeration times and creates less waste than the production, transportation and consumption of ready meals.

Take that delicious lamb curry that was ready in minutes. We’ve worked out that it has a footprint of 6kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per consumer.

One delicious lamb curry microwaved in moments has a footprint of 6kg CO2e

Based on 30 per cent of UK adults eating one of these curries at least once a week, that equates to a carbon footprint the equivalent of driving round the world an incredible 5,500 times.

And that’s just lamb curry - when you add in the impact of the millions of other ready meals sold each year, it’s clear just how big a footprint we’re leaving.

So what can we do about it?

Well, for one thing, we could eat less meat - half of that lamb curry footprint comes from the lamb itself (sheep emit methane which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) - or at least eat less red meat (a chicken curry has half the carbon footprint of a lamb curry).

And secondly, we could try to find a few spare hours in our busy schedules to cook more meals from scratch.

What can we do about it? Eat less meat; eat less red meat; and try to find a few spare hours to cook more meals from scratch

The process of cooking meals at home involves less refrigeration time and less waste, so we’ve found that, on average, a homemade lamb curry would use 15 per cent less carbon than a ready meal.

That’s the problem with convenience food: when it comes to protecting the planet, it’s a bit of an inconvenience.

* According to 2013 Mintel report

Adisa Azapagic is Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering at the University of Manchester, where she leads the Sustainable Industrial Systems group. The group’s objective is to identify environmental, economic and social sustainability issues in everyday life, including those related to what we eat and how we eat it, and to propose potential methods to tackle them.


What is your specific field of research?

My research group is called Sustainable Industrial Systems. We work with various industries to identify and analyse environmental, economic and social sustainability issues. My original degree was in environmental chemical engineering and over the years I’ve shifted my focus to sustainable development. It’s something I’m passionate about - the more you look into the issues, the more passionate you become about finding solutions.

Why is the University of Manchester the right place for your research?

Manchester is one of the best universities in the country and the leading university in chemical engineering, which is why I came here in the first place.

I’m hoping Manchester will now emerge as one of the leading forces in the area of sustainability in the food sector. Funding for the Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains is a really big milestone. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has given us a £7m grant, of which £1.9m has been awarded to us here at Manchester.

How important is collaboration?

Collaboration is absolutely vital. My work spans so many disciplines, I simply couldn’t do it on my own. And it’s not just about academic partnerships either - I’ve worked with hundreds of companies over the years in different sectors.

After all we are engineers - applied scientists - so our work would be meaningless without industry collaboration.

Why is food such an important issue at this point in time?

Our growing population and evolving demographics and changing diets are altering the pattern of consumption, which has major implications for the environment, the economy and society. It’s the perfect storm. One of the biggest issues is food waste. Globally, we throw away a third of all the food we produce. That is not sustainable and it’s something that we need to address urgently.

How does your research help meet this challenge?

We try to understand the issues from cradle to grave. Starting with agriculture and moving into processing, distribution and all the way through to purchase, consumption and waste management, we look at the issues then try to work out how we could mitigate them. From an environmental point of view, we use tools like lifecycle assessment, carbon footprint calculation and the study of other environmental impacts such as ozone layer depletion and acidification and eco-toxicity. We also look at the lifecycle costs borne by everyone in the supply chain, from manufacturers and distributors to retailers and consumers.

On the social side, we look at health, obesity, employment opportunities, the way people shop, lifestyles and so on. Our research attempts to put all of that together to work out what the optimum consumption patterns would be for a more sustainable food system.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

We’re fortunate that we work with industry so we get to see the latest innovations and advances and changes in attitude. 10 years ago, sustainability wasn’t something that anyone wanted to engage with within the food sector, but these days the industry is knocking on our door and coming to talk to us all the time looking for sustainable solutions to their problems. The creation of the Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains is a really exciting development. It’s a collaborative partnership between Manchester, Brunel and Birmingham universities and around 30 industrial partners. Our focus will be on looking at ways to reduce energy and resource use across the supply chains in the UK from farm to fork.

And what are you most concerned about?

When you think how big some of these problems are globally, there are so many things that need to be addressed, it can be pretty daunting. For instance, we’re all now so focused on solving the problem of climate change, which is great. However, I am concerned that we may do that at the expense of other environmental impacts, as solutions to climate change may lead to further problems, if we’re not careful. Some of these problems we have already solved, such as acidification and ozone layer depletion. Policy also tends to focus on single stages of the lifecycle rather than the whole cycle. For example, we’re very good at regulating manufacturing, but what about agriculture, distribution and consumption? We need a more integrated policy that goes across all these issues and the supply chains. But little by little, we are moving things forward. Over the years I have seen some really positive changes but these are long-term issues that need to be addressed over time. I always find it’s more productive to focus on the excitement of the challenge rather than the negative implications!

By Bill Bows in interview with Adisa Azapagic