The Impact/Footprint Of Producing & Eating Butter & Margarine

Each type of food we eat has it’s own sustainability footprint. 

In this guide, we’ve outlined some of the potential impact/footprint of producing butter and margarine.


Summary – The Footprint Of Butter & Margarine

According to some estimates, margarine emits far less greenhouse gases than butter

Butter might have one of the highest emission footprints, behind beef and lamb

Butter is relatively water intensive to make – but serving size should be taken into account

A vegetable oil based margarine might have a smaller land footprint to produce than a dairy based butter

The only area butter has a smaller environmental impact compared to margarine is in it’s photochemical ozone creation potential – specifically because hexane is used in margarine’s vegetable oil–extraction process – and this creates ozone

The type of oil used in margarine can matter …

Sunflower oil and rapeseed (canola) oil, along with organic oils, expeller-pressed or cold-pressed oils, might be some of the best for margarine

Palm, soy and peanut oil might be among some of the worst


Carbon Footprint Of Butter

  • The greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of butter is 4.7 kilogrammes of CO2e per 500 grammes (kg CO2e/500g)
  • Generic margarine is 0.48 kilogrammes of CO2e per 500 grammes



  • Butter is the third most climate damaging food behind beef and lamb
  • It produces 11.9 kg of C02e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per 1 lkg of butter produced



How Much Water It Takes To Produce Butter

  • It takes 5,553 litres of water to produce a 1kg of butter



  • Butter uses 1572 litres of water per 500 grammes (lt/500g)



How Much Land It Takes To Produce Butter

Margarine uses less land than butter.


  • The land footprint of butter is 8.5 square metres per 500 grammes (m2/500g);
  • It is 1.02 m2/500g for a vegetable oil based margarine spread
  • … butter comes from cows, and margarine in a large part comes from fields of oil seed



How Much Milk Does It Take To Make Butter?

  • To get a pound of butter, you need 21 pounds of milk



The type of milk used to make butter can make a difference to this figure though.


Butter vs Margarine – Which Is More Environmentally Friendly?

When comparing the life cycle assessment of butter vs margarine…

  • Margarine has a significantly lower environmental impact than butter in four important areas:
  • 1) global warming potential (GWP; i.e., carbon footprint),
  • 2) eutrophication potential,
  • 3) acidification potential,
  • 4) and land impact.
  • Butter has a smaller environmental impact than margarine only with respect to its photochemical ozone creation potential, POCP. Margarine’s POCP is higher because hexane, which facilitates the formation of ozone in the lower atmosphere, is used in the vegetable oil–extraction process used to make margarine. Making margarine from vegetable oil is undeniably an industrial chemical process
  • The carbon footprint of butter is over four times that of margarine. The large GWP for butter is attributable 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.



  • Butter has more than double the environmental impact of margarine when it comes to climate change
  • It also caused more water and air pollution problems.
  • If we’re looking just at the carbon footprint, butter is four times worse
  • The only place butter came up [better] than margarine was in regards to ozone, because some oil-extraction techniques involve the use of the ozone-creating chemical hexane.



Which Oils Are The Most Environmentally Friendly For Margarine?

The oil used in margarine matters.


  • Palm oil is one of the worst
  • … coconut oil has some fair trade and monocrop baggage associated with it
  • … soy, canola, and corn oils are often made from GMO crops
  • … poorly managed olive oil plantations are linked to soil issues and water shortages.
  • 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



A Note About The Variability Of Agriculture In Different Parts Of The World

Agricultural production (livestock, dairy, crops etc.) 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 producers.


Each butter and margarine product from each brand should really be assessed separately.








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