The Carbon Footprints Of Different Foods

We’ve already put together a guide on the carbon footprint of everyday products and things (like cars, electricity, household appliances, etc)

But, in the guide below, we’ve listed the different foods and drinks that have the highest and lowest carbon footprints across different indicators.

We’ve also organized them into categories.

 

Summary – Carbon Footprint Of Foods, Crops & Drinks/Beverages

Different foods, crops and beverages/drinks have different carbon footprints

 

– In general

Animal meats tend to emit the most carbon emissions per unit of weight produced

Beef is one of the most carbon intensive foods, with lamb not being far behind, as well as pork (and larger livestock animals)

Poultry/chicken is one of the lower emitters of the animal meats

Having said that, the farming method of livestock can change the carbon footprint too though 

Seafood tends to have a lower carbon footprint than land raised livestock (but ocean caught and fish farmed seafood can differ in their footprints, and different fishing methods can change footprints)

Apart from meats, animal based products such as dairy can rate higher of the emissions lists for food.

Some sources even indicate that butter is the third highest emitting food behind beef and lamb

Chocolate is another dairy based product that can rate somewhere between vegetarian based foods and meat in terms of emission per unit of weight of chocolate produced (and milk chocolate and dark chocolate can differ in their carbon footprints).

Additionally with chocolate, dark chocolate can have a higher carbon footprint than milk chocolate, and, adding the sourcing of cocoa beans and land use changes to the lifecycle assessment can increase the carbon footprint substantially

Vegetarian and plant based diets (vegetables, fruits, grains, etc) tend to emit less per unit of weight produced compared to animal based food products

Vegan diets tend to have the lowest carbon footprints overall

There are other ways of measuring carbon footprints of food that may change results, such as – per serving, per gram of protein produced, per calorie produced, per dollar of economic value produced, per gram of fat, per gram of carbs, per X number of micro nutrients and minerals, and so on

Consider too that not all proteins or fats are the same. For example, there’s full proteins and partial proteins. And, there’s omega fats, and other types of fats. So, nutrition needs accurate comparisons in this regard.

 

– Per unit of food weight produced

Meat, seafood, cheese and eggs have the highest carbon footprint.

Beef and lamb rate highest, whilst chicken and turkey, along with tuna, rate lowest for emissions out of the meats

Pork, veal and farmed salmon might fall somewhere in the middle

Plant based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts have much lower carbon footprints.

Asparagus is the exception to that according to one list

 

– Per Total Tonnes Produced

When looking at total weight of meat produced, beef might have a far higher carbon footprint relative to the tonnes of beef produced, compared to pork and poultry.

I.e. the ratio of carbon emitted per tonne of beef produced is higher than for pork and poultry, when considering how all three meats are currently produced.

This could change though on a country by country basis, as different countries produce their meat in different ways.

 

– Per serving of food

Beef once again is at the top of the list

Meats, cheese, eggs and milk are others near the top of the list

Poultry again is one of the less carbon intensive meats per serving

Plant based foods like rice, legumes, carrots and potatoes rate lowest in terms of emissions per serving

Having said that, various sources say that rice cultivation is a major methane emitter in China (which may be due to various factors such as conditions, but also the sheer quantity of rice cultivated).

 

– Per calorie produced

Meats have a larger carbon footprint that plant based foods because of the conversion inefficiency of feed to animals to food

 

– Per unit of protein produced

Per kilo of protein produced, beef might emit more than pork and chicken (chicken is the lowest emitter) 

These figures reference chicken and pork produced in factory farms though, compared to cattle that aren’t

Although factory farms can have animal rights and welfare concerns, they might be better for the environment when it comes to carbon emission efficiency.

So, how animals are farmed matters to carbon footprint calculations.

 

– Types of diets

Meat based diets rate higher in emissions than fish, vegetarian and vegan diets.

Something to note about plant based foods, is that there are exceptions where the emissions can be higher. These exceptions might include a food like rice, which emits a lot of methane when grown in water logged conditions (some estimates identify rice as being responsible for 12% of methane emissions, and 2.5% of total emissions). Electricity for lighting and other use in greenhouses is another example

Plant foods may also be less sustainable when more irrigated water is required, more water is required in hot climates, or again when electricity is required for greenhouse growing conditions – just as a few examples

Some plant based foods are grown solely for animal feed

Some plant based foods have a large % of their emissions come from the fertilizers used on them

Some organic foods may use less energy, but may require more land, and be more environmentally damaging in other ways. There can be tradeoffs to organic foods

Plant based foods are not practical everywhere on a farming level due to several factors, and on a sustainability level in water scarce areas (where water hungry crops are being grown)

Plant based foods may also not be healthy or practical on a consumer level when taking into consideration health/nutrition requirements, and factors like cost, and the perishability of some plant based foods

 

– Other notes

The best diet agriculturally and for consumers depends on a range of factors

The same type of food can have a different carbon footprint when produced in a different way in a different location, so, these variables should be taken into consideration

The soil, climate, average rainfall, resources used (fertilizer and pesticides), and the specifics of the place where they are grown and the farmer’s preferences can all play a role in changing carbon footprints for the same type of food product, but grown on another farm, or in another area of the world

With livestock production for example, factory farms may lead to more efficient and lower carbon footprints compared to animals raised on pastures. But, a tradeoff may be the rights and welfare of the animals. So, different production and farming methods have different tradeoffs

Additionally with livestock, factors like feed conversion efficiency (animal feed required to produce X amount of animal meat), and how long the animal spends on the farm (number of months), can impact the carbon footprint.

Some estimates say food makes up 20 to 30% of an individual’s carbon footprint

Overall, estimates for agriculture’s carbon footprint are at around 10% in the US according to some sets of data

Taking into consideration indirect emissions for the food industry, such as food packaging, food related emissions may be higher

Carbon footprint is only one measurement of sustainability – some vegetables and fruits for example are very water hungry, or have other environmental side effects (such as contributing to pollution in some way, or contributing to resource depletion).

 

Carbon Footprint Of Foods, Per Unit Of Weight Produced

According to the data sets below, meat, seafood, cheese and eggs have the highest carbon footprint.

Plant based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts have much lower carbon footprints.

Asparagus is the exception to that according to one list.

 

The following numbers show the greenhouse gas emissions produced by one kilo of each food:

Lamb – 39.2 C02 Kilos Equivalent (91 car miles equivalent)

Beef – 27 C02e

Cheese – 13.5 C02e

Pork – 12.1 C02e

Farmed Salmon – 11.9C02e

Turkey – 10.9 C02e

Chicken – 6.9 C02e

Tuna – 6.1 C02e

Eggs – 4.8 C02e

Potatoes – 2.9 C02e

Rice – 2.7 C02e

Peanut Butter – 2.5 C02e

Nuts – 2.3 C02e

Yogurt – 2.2 C02e

Broccoli – 2 C02e

Beans/Tofu – 2 C02e

Vegetables – 2 C02e

Milk – 1.9 C02e

Fruit – 1.1 C02e

Lentils – 0.9 C02e (2 car miles equivalent)

In the report used and cited, they explain the production Life Cycle Analysis for each food type.

The numbers above include all the emissions produced on the farm, in the factory, on the road, in the shop and in your home. 

– From Greeneatz.com, with figures by the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide and the EPA’s Guide to Passenger Vehicle Emissions.

 

kg of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent per kilo of food produced are:

Beef – 26.5 (kg of C02e emitted per kilo produced)

Lamb – 22.9

Butter – 11.9

Shellfish – 11.7

Cheese – 9.8

Asparagus – 8.9

Pork – 7.9

Veal – 7.8

Chicken – 5.1

Turkey – 5.1

– nrdc.org

 

Making a 1 kg hard cheese generates 12 kg of CO2 (the same amount of CO2 as a car travelling for 6 km)

Making 12 kg of carrots generates 12 kg of CO2

– activesustainability.com

 

The average 40-gram bar of milk chocolate will carry with it a carbon footprint of around 200 grams (or upwards of 5 kilograms per kilogram of chocolate) [and this increases for dark chocolate]

 

Carbon Footprint Per Total Weight Produced

When looking at total weight of meat produced, beef might have a far higher carbon footprint relative to the tonnes of beef produced, compared to pork and poultry.

 

According to economist.com:

Cattle account for 77% of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock for 59m tonnes of beef each year.

Pork and poultry produce 10% of the greenhouse gases, but 215m tonnes of meat.

 

Carbon Footprint Of Foods, Per Serving

Per serving, meat and dairy again tops the list, whilst plant based foods are found towards the bottom of the list.

 

The following foods produce the following amounts of pounds of CO2 per serving:

Beef – 6.61 (lbs of C02 per serving)

Cheese – 2.45

Pork – 1.72

Poultry – 1.26

Eggs – 0.89

Milk – 0.72

Rice – 0.16

Legumes – 0.11

Carrots – 0.07

Potatoes – 0.03

– css.umich.edu

 

Carbon Footprints Of Foods, Per Calorie

Meats rate higher in emissions compared to plant based foods again, on a per calorie basis.

 

Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy

– css.umich.edu

 

Carbon Footprints Of Foods, Per Nutritional Unit

Per kilo of protein produced, chicken might emit less than pork and beef, and pork might emit less than beef. Beef might be the top emitter.

Although factory farms can have animal rights and welfare concerns, they might be better for the environment when it comes to carbon emission efficiency.

 

According to economist.com:

… the greenhouse gases associated with the production of a kilo of protein by different animals:

Up to 1,000kg for cattle/beef

24kg for pork

3.7kg for chicken

… The more efficient ratios for chicken and pigs come about because they are kept in factory farms.

 

Carbon Footprint Of Different Food Diet Types – High Meat Through To Vegetarian & Vegan

Meat based diets rate higher in emissions than fish, vegetarian and vegan diets.

 

Average dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day in 2014 (in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent) [for different types of diets] were:

7.19 for high meat-eaters

5.63 for medium meat-eaters

4.67 for low meat-eaters

3.91 for fish-eaters

3.81 for vegetarians

2.89 for vegans

– Wikipedia.org

 

Carbon Footprint Of Meat

Beef and lamb rate near the top of the emissions list, whilst chicken and tuna have some of the lowest emissions.

 

The CO2 per kilogram of different meats is (It includes all the emissions produced on the farm, in the factory, on the road, in the shop and in your home):

Lamb – 39.2 (C02 per one kilogram)

Beef – 27.0

Pork – 12.1

Farmed Salmon – 11.9

Turkey – 10.9

Chicken – 6.9

Tuna – 6.1

– Greeneatz.com, with figures by the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide and the EPA’s Guide to Passenger Vehicle Emissions.

 

A close second to lamb, beef production releases the equivalent of driving about 6 ½ miles in your car for every four oz. consumed.

– onegreenplanet.org

 

If you’re eating 444 calories a day of red meat (the equivalent of about one 8-ounce steak sirloin), your annual meat-related carbon footprint is 0.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

– livescience.com

 

Read more about the carbon footprint and sustainability footprint of beef in this guide.

theconversation.com indicates that ‘Farming cattle releases five times more greenhouse gases and uses six times as much nitrogen as the average of other animal products’

 

Carbon Footprint Of Plant Based Foods

From the data above, the trend is that plant based foods generally produce less emissions than animal based foods and meats, on a per unit of weight produced basis.

 

Exceptions

Plant based foods may have higher emissions in the following circumstances:

– When some other unit of measurement is used, such as measuring per gram of protein or fat produced

– Plant based foods grown in dry or hotter climates, or locations where extensive irrigation in required. More energy is required to supply water to these crops and foods in this instance

–  Plant based foods grown in greenhouses using fossil fuels for lighting and other electricity requirements 

– Plant based foods like some varieties of rice that are grown in anaerobic or waterlogged conditions that produce emissions 

– As outlined by climatechangenews.com, how food is grown at an individual farm or ranch level matters for emissions, so, these variables are important

 

The Link Between Tofu, Soybeans, & Beef

There should be a distinction made between plant based food grown for livestock feed, and plant based food grown for direct human consumption.

This is the case with soy being produced for livestock feed.

 

From climatechangenews.com:

Around 70% of the global soy production is fed directly to livestock [as opposed to going to tofu].

Beef [has] 105kg of Co2e per 100g, while tofu produces less than 3.5kg.

So, there is a higher link between livestock and soybeans than tofu and soy.

 

Wheat & Bread

It can also be important to know where emissions come from. 

For a loaf of bread for example, a large amount may come from fertilizer.

 

From climatechangenews.com:

Most of the emissions from staples such as bread come from the fertiliser used to grow wheat [about 43% according to some estimates]

Cereals used in bread, such as oats and barley, have smaller carbon footprints than typical wheat used in white loaves, as well as rye.

 

Carbon Footprint Of Individual Food Items

Large cheeseburger – 2.5kg C02e

– ourworld.unu.edu

 

Carbon Footprint Of Milk

If you consume a litre of milk a day, that’s 527 kg of carbon emissions per year

– ourworld.unu.edu

 

Carbon Footprint Of Chocolate

Read more about the carbon footprint and sustainability footprint of chocolate in this guide.

 

Carbon Footprint Of Butter & Margarine

Read more about the carbon footprint and sustainability footprint of butter and margarine in this guide.

 

Carbon Footprint Of Organic Food

Some sources indicate that organic food can use less energy, but might have other environmental and economic tradeoffs to consider.

 

From climatechangenews.com:

Organic systems require 25 to 110% more land use, use 15% less energy, and have 37% higher eutrophication potential than conventional systems per unit of food.

 

Why Plant Based Agriculture May Not Be Practical Everywhere

Plant based agriculture can have a number of challenges in different locations, and can even be less sustainable in some instances.

For example:

– Plant based agriculture may not be effective in dry or hot climates (due to growing conditions)

– Plant based agriculture may be less sustainable in dry and hot climates

– Some crops may not grow on certain types of land or in certain types of soil

 

From climatechangenews.com:

The best diet depends on the farming method and the conditions, land, climate and other local factors for agricultural production.

It’s a case by case basis for sustainability – not a one size fits all approach.

[This same applies to the practicality and profitability of farming and agriculture – it’s a cas by case basis in each geographic location, and the different markets and economies]

 

Why Plant Based Diets May Not Be Practical Or Healthy For Everyone

Plant based diets may not be healthy for everyone due to the different dietary requirements and  health conditions (or intolerances) that each individual has.

Additionally, if we take fruits and vegetables for example as perishable food items, they may not be suitable for people who need food that lasts longer.

Cost can even be an issue for some people who need extremely cheap food.

So, plant based diets are not always for everyone.

 

A Reminder – The Same Food Product Can Have A Different Carbon Footprint When Produced In A Different Way

Carbon footprints for the same type of agricultural product can vary, depending on how and where the food is grown or produced.

Examples of the different factors and variables that might contribute to this are:

The farming/production methods and processes used (factory farmed vs traditional pastoralism for example)

Feed conversion efficiency (how much feed it takes to produce X amount of meat)

How long an animal spends on a farm or ranch (how many months)

The farming conditions (climate, soil, water available, etc)

Efficiency and productivity (yield, how the land is being used, etc)

The climate (whether it’s more dry and hot, or wet and cold)

The types of inputs and resources used (fertilizer, pesticides, feed, and other agricultural inputs and chemicals used)

+ other variables

 

economist.com for example indicates that:

[For cattle] traditional pastoralism [can produce higher emissions due to the low quality, and inefficiency of feed]

Cattle on dry rangelands produce 100 times as much greenhouse gases as cattle in America or Europe for the same amount of protein.

 

The Impact Of Food On An Individual’s Carbon Footprint

Some estimates say food makes up between 20 to 30% of an individual’s carbon footprint.

Read more about the different aspect of an individual’s carbon footprint in this guide.

 

Food – the food we buy can add up to 20% of our carbon footprint.

And this is just at first glance, because if we count up the related damage of deforestation from big agriculture, this brings the impact up to 30%.

– ourworld.unu.edu

 

In the US, each household produces 48 tons of greenhouse gases.

Food produces about 8 tons of emissions per household, or about 17% of the total.

– greeneatz.com

 

How To Decrease The Carbon Footprint Of An Individual Food Diet

Obviously an individual should see a qualified health professional before making changes to their diet.

This is not professional advice, or a substitute for professional advice.

Individuals should make sure they are eating a safe, healthy and nutritionally adequate diet.

 

A few things to be aware of that may decrease the carbon footprint of an individual’s diet might be:

– Reducing the intake of animal meats, especially beef and lamb

– Reducing the intake of dairy products, especially cheese

– Beef, lamb and pork might reasonably be replaced with meats like chicken and/or tuna

– Having a majority plant based diet (vegan or vegetarian) as opposed to a meat or seafood based diet 

– Replacing processed beverage with water

– Reducing or eliminating food waste

 

This is an overly simplistic way of looking at things though.

We’ve already outlined that some individual plant based foods are higher in emissions, and the individual processes and factors that go into agriculture and food production impact emissions.

There’s also the nutrition in each food to consider – both in terms of emissions per nutrition unit, and nutrition for the individual eating the food. Not all nutritional units are equal too – some have full proteins and some have partial proteins – this needs to be taken into account.

Also consider that carbon is only on measure of sustainability – there’s many more. Additionally, food has economic and social considerations.

 

Case Study On Lowering Food Environmental Footprint Through Diet

You can read a case study on lowering the environmental footprint in one person’s diet in the WRI resource in the resources list below 

The writer notes that 85 percent of the GHG emissions and 90 percent of the agricultural land use associated with the average American diet come from animal meat and dairy, and about half of the emissions and land use are from beef alone.

The land required for this food and the greenhouse gas emissions produced (for an average American diet) is nearly twice as high as the world average.

Shifting from beef to chicken, and cutting meat, dairy, fish and egg consumption by half – will decrease your environmental impact of your diet by 15%, and almost 50% respectively.

The author doesn’t mention though factors like how much food each person consumes in total, food waste, and so on.

 

Additional Information To Consider

From css.umich.edu:

Meat, Dairy Products, & Poultry, Fish, Seafood and Eggs are all responsible for a large majority of the greenhouse gases [in the average diet]

Vegetables, fruits, grain products, sugars, sweeteners, oil, fats, and other food groups make up less than 20% of the average food consumption greenhouse gases

 

% Share Of Emissions From Food & Agriculture

Agriculture can make up a different share of total emissions depending on the country.

Agriculture tends to be a major emitter of methane and nitrous oxide though.

 

Different data shows:

Globally, agriculture, forestry and land use together might be responsible for 24% of emissions, but, various sources say that there is an offset (due to carbon sinks) of up to 20%

In the US, agriculture might be responsible for somewhere between 9 to 12% of greenhouse gas emissions

 

Something else to consider though (which these numbers don’t take into account) are the greenhouse gases from indirect sources of the food industry, such as food packaging, landfill emissions, emissions from food stores, and so on.

 

Sources

1. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/shrink-your-carbon-footprint-ease-dairy

2. http://www.greeneatz.com/foods-carbon-footprint.html

3. http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/methodology_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf

4. http://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/06/13/7-surprising-things-carbon-footprint-food/

5. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/10-common-climate-damaging-foods-infographic.pdf

6. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/carbon-footprint-of-common-everyday-things-products-foods/

7. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-top-10-foods-with-the-biggest-environmental-footprint-2015-9?r=US&IR=T

8. http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet

9. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/shrink-your-carbon-footprint-ease-dairy

10. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data

11. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

12. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/summary-greenhouse-gas-emissions-worldwide-globally-past-present-future/

13. https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/how-i-tweaked-my-diet-cut-its-environmental-footprint-half

14. https://www.wri.org/blog/2016/04/sustainable-diets-what-you-need-know-12-charts 

15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint

16. https://www.activesustainability.com/sustainable-life/the-carbon-footprint-of-everyday-objects/

17. https://www.livescience.com/13835-carbon-footprint-daily-activities.html

18. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/uncovering-the-carbon-footprint-of-everything

19. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/most-environmentally-destructive-foods/

20. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/news/cows-are-eating-a-huge-amount-of-fish/

21. https://www.economist.com/feast-and-famine/2013/12/31/meat-and-greens

22. https://theconversation.com/the-true-cost-of-cattle-is-much-much-higher-than-you-imagine-29491

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