Each type of food we eat has it’s own sustainability footprint.
In this guide, we’ve outlined the potential sustainability footprint of producing butter and margarine.
Summary – The Sustainability Footprint Of Butter & Margarine
One of the main differences between butter and margarine is that butter usually comes from daily, and margarine from plant oils
When it comes to the carbon footprints of different foods, butter might be one of the highest emitters per unit of weight produced, behind beef and lamb
Margarine generally emits less than butter on the same basis
When it comes to the water footprints of different foods, butter one might be one of the most water intensive foods per unit of weight produced.
But, based on butter’s smaller weight per serving size, butter might slide down the food carbon and water footprint lists behind other foods
When it comes to land footprints of different foods, a vegetable oil based margarine might have a smaller land footprint to produce than a dairy based butter
Various sources indicate that butter has a worse environmental impact compared to margarine across almost every environmental indicator, and overall has about 2 times the impact.
The only one area margarine might have a worse environmental impact than butter is in it’s photochemical ozone creation potential
The type of oil used in margarine can matter …
Sunflower oil and rapeseed (canola) oil might be some of the best when considering carbon and water footprints. Organic oils, expeller-pressed or cold-pressed oils, and local oils might rate well environmentally too
Palm, soy and peanut oil might all have environmental issues to consider, along with coconut oil, canola, corn and olive oils
Overall, because different brands and products of butter and margarine have different ingredients and production processes, each brand/product should be assessed separately across it’s life cycle
Miscellaneous factors such as nutrition and health impact of different butters and margarines might also be considered
Main Difference Between Butter & Margarine
Butter tends to be a dairy product (from cows for example)
Margarine tends to come from plant oils, such as soybean, corn, palm, canola, or olive oils
There’s also usually some nutritional profile differences between the two, and there can also be different health impacts between the two
Carbon Footprint Of Butter & Margarine
Margarine has a smaller carbon footprint compared to butter.
The greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of butter is 4.7 kilogrammes of CO2e per 500 grammes (kg CO2e/500g) (garethhuwdavies.com)
Butter is the third most climate damaging food behind beef and lamb
It produces 11.9 kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per 1 lkg of butter produced
Generic margarine [has a carbon footprint of] 0.48 kilogrammes of CO2e per 500 grammes
How Much Water It Takes To Produce Butter
The water footprint of butter can be measured on a per kg, or per gram basis.
It takes 5,553 litres of water to produce a 1kg of butter (theguardian.com)
Butter uses 1572 litres of water per 500 grammes (lt/500g) (garethhuwdavies.com)
How Much Land It Takes To Produce Butter & Margarine
Margarine has a smaller land footprint compared to butter on a square metre per gram basis.
The land footprint of butter is 8.5 square metres per 500 grammes (m2/500g) (garethhuwdavies.com)
[The land footprint of margarine] is 1.02 m2/500g for a vegetable oil based margarine spread (garethhuwdavies.com)
How Much Milk Does It Take To Make Butter?
To get a pound of butter, you need 21 pounds of milk (nrdc.org)
The type of milk used to make butter can make a difference to this figure though.
Also consider that you need a source for the milk, such as a dairy cow.
Butter vs Margarine – Which Is More Environmentally Friendly?
Various reports indicate that butter has a greater overall environmental impact than margarine, – roughly two times the impact.
It is also worse environmentally than margarine across all but one lifecycle assessment indicators.
conservationmagazine.org indicates (paraphrased):
– Margarine’s environmental impact is significantly lower than butter across their entire lifecycles (and when looking at a life cycle assessment of each)
– This is the case across 4 areas – global warming potential, eutrophication potential, acidification potential, land impact
– Butter only rates lower in environmental impact in one area – photochemical ozone creation potential (and this is because of the hexane used in the vegetable oil–extraction process for margarine)
– The carbon footprint of butter is over four times that of margarine (due primarily to ‘methane from dairy cows’ digestive systems, emissions from manure, and the production of feed for the cows’)
– ‘For the eutrophication and acidification impacts, the footprint of butter is at least twice that of margarine’
– ‘Finally, land use for butter is about twice that of margarine because more land is needed to produce the feed for dairy cows than is needed to grow the crops for vegetable oil used to make margarine’
According to grist.org:
Butter has more than double the environmental impact of margarine when it comes to climate change
If we’re looking just at the carbon footprint, butter is four times worse
[Butter also contributes to] more water and air pollution problems.
Which Oils Are The Most Environmentally Friendly For Margarine?
The oil used in margarine matters, as some might be more eco friendly than others.
Most Environmentally Friendly
Sunflower oil and rapeseed (canola) oil had the lowest carbon footprints and water consumption, beating out soy, palm, and peanut oil by wide margins.
Organic oils, expeller-pressed or cold-pressed oils, and local oils are worth consideration [for sustainability]
Least Environmentally Friendly
Palm oil is one of the worst
[coconut oil, soy, canola, corn and olive oils can individually each have separate issues with fair trade, monocrop baggage, being made from GMO crops, or being linked to soil issues or water shortages]
[Read more in the grist.org resource about each one]
A Note About The Variability Of Agriculture In Different Parts Of The World
Agricultural production (livestock, dairy, crops etc.), and food production, differs between countries and states/provinces, and between agricultural producers – there’s many factors to consider with each set of agricultural data and between data.
Some producers may put profit as their first and only priority, whilst other producers may consider the environment, sustainability, efficient resource usage, the health and well being of animals, and other factors.
These figures and this information is of a general nature and not reflective of all agricultural and food producers.
Each butter and margarine product from each brand should really be assessed separately too, as they each may have different production processes.