Different foods have different carbon footprints i.e. the amount of carbon they are responsible for emitting (usually during production)
This guide provides an outline of how it might be possible to decrease the total carbon footprint an individual’s diet, by identifying the foods with the highest and lowest carbon footprints.
This guide is a complementary guide to this guide, which outlines the individual CO2e of individual foods and food groups – Foods With The Highest Carbon Footprint & Impact On Climate Change
(*Note – this guide contains general information only. It is not expert advice or a professional opinion. See a professional before making decisions or changes with your health or diet.)
Summary – How To Decrease The Carbon Footprint With The Foods You Eat
CO2 Kilos Equivalent (CO2e) is a measurement that combines all greenhouse gases into on number or unit (as each GHG has different GWP potential)
When talking about CO2 Kilos Equivalent (CO2e) produced per kilo of food, the following trends might apply:
Eliminate, Or Reduce – meats (mainly lamb and beef), seafood, dairy (although some milks might not be as bad), and highly processed or refined sugar type foods
Substitute With, Or Increase – vegetables and pulses, fruits, rice, nuts, and a diet with more plant based foods (you could also substitute beef and lamb with chicken or tuna and you’d still theoretically be decreasing your carbon footprint overall)
What is not clear is the carbon emissions per unit of calories, protein, and fat for the above foods. So, we know CO2 equivalent for the weight of the food, but not the nutritional data.
This is a very simplistic way of looking at it though (even though the above summary does take into account production, all the way up to eating the food, or it going to waste – the full lifecycle of the food)
There are many other factors to consider in a food diet other than just the carbon footprint (and the carbon footprint of the same food can differ depending on how you measure it, or depending on other variables). You have to consider how much water the food takes to produce, how much land, the % of food waste of the different types of food, and more.
Solely plant based diets are not perfect, do have their own drawbacks, and may not be healthy for some groups of people with certain nutritional requirements and health conditions.
Some vegetables and plant based foods such as asparagus or greenhouse grown tomatoes for example might have higher carbon footprints.
* A Note About Your Diet & Health – Always see a suitably qualified food or health professional before changing your diet, or the foods you are currently eating. This is general information only on this page, and is not advice or a recommendation of any kind
Food Groups With Higher Carbon Footprints
Animal meat (lamb, beef, pork, turkey, chicken), and seafood (farmed salmon, tuna). Although chicken for example tends to have a far lower carbon footprint than beef or lamb
Dairy – Cheese in particular
Greenhouse grown fruits (using electricity and natural gas for heating and lights)
Food Groups With Lower Water Footprints
Most Vegetables, Beans & Pulses
Generally anything plant based
Notes On Food Carbon Footprint Variables
The carbon footprint given for any particular food will vary depending on where/how the food has been produced, what data has been used, and the final unit of measurement.
It does depend on the farming method used (for example field grown vs greenhouse enclosure grown), where the food is produced (country, state/province and specific farm) and other factors.
It also depends on which indicator you are measuring the food carbon footprint by:
- Per serving
- Per unit of weight (pounds, kilograms etc.)
- Per calorie or kilocalorie
- Per gram of protein
- Per gram of fat
- Per gram of carbohydrates
- and more
Different foods have different nutritional profiles, which is a different consideration altogether from food weight or serving amount.
You also have to consider food waste – and vegetables, fruits and healthier foods tend to have a higher food waste rate at the consumer level (and therefore their carbon footprint increases when consumer level waste is taken into account).
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.