The food we eat can have an impact on climate change, and different foods emit different amounts of greenhouse gases during their production.
In this quick guide, we look at some of the foods with the highest greenhouse gas footprints.
(Note – this guide is complementary to this larger guide we put together about the carbon footprint of everyday products and things)
Summary – Foods With The Highest Carbon Footprint
Agriculture and land use as a combined sector/industry is responsible for differing %’s of greenhouse gas emissions in each country [electricity generation, transportation and industrial activity tend to lead in terms of carbon emissions, whilst globally agriculture can lead in methane and nitrous oxide emissions]
Animal based foods tend to have the highest carbon footprint – especially meats, but also dairy, some seafood, and so on
Meats like chicken tend to have a lower carbon footprint compared to meats like beef and lamb
Vegetables, fruits, grains and plant based foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint in general
There are exceptions – some plant based foods grown in some hot and dry climates in the world can have higher carbon footprints, as well as greenhouse grown plant based food that use electricity for lights and so on
Rice is also an example of a a plant based food that can emit 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)
A vegetarian based diet that requires more water to grow may not be practical everywhere – especially in countries or cities with scarce water supplies
*Note that the above figures apply to per kg portions. There are other ways of measuring carbon footprints of food that may change results such as per serving, per gram of protein, per gram of fat, per gram of carbs, per X number of micro nutrients and minerals, and so on.
People may also have special dietary requirements that prevent them from consuming certain types of food – which may make lower carbon foods unsuitable for them in a practical sense.
Additionally, as noted by climatechangenews.com, carbon footprints for the same or different agricultural products can be impacted by:
- The farming/production methods and processes used
- The farming conditions
- Efficiency and productivity
- The climate
- The types of inputs and resources used
- + other variables
Impact Of Food & Agriculture On Climate Change & Global Warming
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.
- Yearly, we produce five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from crop and livestock production.
- Global Emissions From Agriculture, Forestry & Land Use – 24% of 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions – Greenhouse gas emissions from this sector come mostly from agriculture (cultivation of crops and livestock) and deforestation. This estimate does not include the CO2 that ecosystems remove from the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in biomass, dead organic matter, and soils, which offset approximately 20% of emissions from this sector.
- US Emissions From Just Agriculture – 9 percent of 2016 greenhouse gas emissions – Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production.
Foods With The Highest Carbon Footprint & Impact On Climate Change
The trend you can see below is that it’s mainly animal and dairy based food products that have high carbon footprints per weight unit or per serving produced.
Lamb and beef are two of the significant emitters.
Vegetables and fruits and plant based foods generally have lower carbon footprints.
The following numbers show the greenhouse gas emissions produced by one kilo of each food.
It includes all the emissions produced on the farm, in the factory, on the road, in the shop and in your home. It also shows how many miles you need to drive to produce that many greenhouse gases.
Meat, cheese and eggs have the highest carbon footprint. Fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts have much lower carbon footprints:
- Lamb – 39.2 C02 Kilos Equivalent, and 91 car miles equivalent
- Beef – 27 C02e, and 63
- Cheese – 13.5 C02e, and 31
- Pork – 12.1 C02e, and 28
- Farmed Salmon – 11.9C02e
- Turkey – 10.9 C02e, and 25
- Chicken – 6.9 C02e, and 16
- Tuna – 6.1 C02e, and 14
- Eggs – 4.8 C02e, and 11
- Potatoes – 2.9 C02e, and 7
- Rice – 2.7 C02e, and 6
- Peanut Butter – 2.5 C02e
- Nuts – 2.3 C02e, and 5
- Yogurt – 2.2 C02e, and
- Broccoli – 2 C02e, and
- Beans/Tofu – 2 C02e, and 4.5
- Vegetables – 2 C02e, and 4.5
- Milk – 1.9 C02e, and 4
- Fruit – 1.1 C02e, and 2.5
- Lentils – 0.9 C02e, and 2
In the report used and cited, they explain the production Life Cycle Analysis for each food type.
– From Greeneatz.com, with figures by the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide and the EPA’s Guide to Passenger Vehicle Emissions.
Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy
The following foods produce the following amounts of pounds of C02 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
Ten of the most climate damaging foods in terms of 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
Some Other Notes On The Carbon Footprint Of Food
Some interesting notes and exceptions to carbon footprint principles for food are:
- Not All Vegetables & Fruits Are Low Carbon – … how a food is produced at an individual farm or ranch determines the final carbon footprint. For example, a tomato grown in a greenhouse in the UK that uses electricity and natural gas for lights and heating is going to have a higher carbon footprint than a regular tomato
- Tofu, Beef, & Soybeans – Around 70% of the global soy production is fed directly to livestock [as opposed to going to tofu]. Beef racks up to 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.
- Organic Foods – 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. Organic isn’t the perfect solution to sustainability.
- Wheat & Bread – Most of the emissions from staples such as bread come from the fertiliser used to grow wheat. A 2017 study found that ammonium nitrate fertiliser accounts for 43% of all the greenhouse gas emissions in the production process of a loaf of bread. Cereals used in bread, such as oats and barley, have smaller carbon footprints than typical wheat used in white loaves, as well as rye.
- Vegetarian vs Meat eater – … the plant-based diet isn’t practical everywhere, especially for those who live in dry or cold places that cannot support the growth of most vegetable crops. Trying to grow vegetables in dry climates can be worse for sustainability. 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.