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Which Foods Have the Highest Carbon Footprint? We Found Out

If you're wondering which types of food have the highest carbon footprint, there are three that soar about the rest.

Written by
Kaitlyn Lowery

When trying to reduce your carbon footprint, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Whenever I thought about it, all I put into perspective was my waste and how much I drive on a daily basis. I never thought that the food I consumed playing a big role in greenhouse gas emissions.

Our food production is responsible for emitting one quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases, which is crazy to even think about. Many people tend to believe that the emissions are caused by transporting the food, when in reality the majority of the emissions happen before it even gets on the delivery truck.

Animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint than their plant-based alternatives because more soil and water are lost, trees are cut down in order to provide shelter and grazing, and animal waste can pollute rivers and streams if it isn’t treated.

It's important to know what foods are creating such a big footprint so we as consumers can be more aware of what we’re eating and how much we eat.

The Types of Food With the Highest Carbon Footprint

1. Meat Products

Beef has the largest carbon footprint for many reasons. One of the reasons is that when you have a beef herd, a large number of methane emissions are released due to the cow's manure and burping while digesting grasses and plants.

Nitrous oxide is also emitted from ruminant wastes and chemical fertilizers used on the crops that feed the cattle. Ruminant animals—such as cows, sheep, and goats—require a higher amount of food per unit of meat produced. Cows need to consume 16 pounds of vegetation in order to produce one pound of meat for consumption.

Since animal feed also requires land to grow, that also contributes to the carbon footprint because land may need to be cleared in order to house and feed the livestock.

Lamb also has a large carbon footprint for almost the same reasons as beef, but most of its footprint comes from needing to eat a lot and the emissions from the fertilizers used for the crops. Pork and poultry have a significantly smaller effect on the environment mainly because they are non-ruminant livestock, which means they do not produce methane. They also do not require a large number of resources and food.

The biggest reason as to why meat products have the biggest carbon footprint is that ruminant animals require much more resources compared to non-ruminant animals. You do not necessarily have to switch to a vegan/vegetarian diet, but consider enjoying ruminant livestock in moderation. According to the World Resources Institute, if ruminant meat consumption in high consuming countries declined to about 50 calories a day, or one and a half burgers per person per week, it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion.

So instead of going for a hamburger or steak, maybe choose chicken or pork for your next meal to help reduce the carbon footprint, even if it only seems like a small step. 

2. Dairy Products

Given that dairy comes from ruminant animals, it makes sense that cheese comes in second for high number of carbon emissions. The high number of resources that dairy requires means growing more food which leads to a lot of pesticides and fertilizers being used. Also, you can’t forget the methane that ruminant livestock produces.

When craving dairy dairy, try to look for a plant-based option like vegan cheese or non-dairy milks. Plant-based milks have risen in popularity for good reason. When put into perspective, it takes 14 kilo-calories (kcal) of fossil fuels to produce one kcal of dairy milk, when 1 kcal of fossil fuels can produce 3.2 kcal of soybeans.

Those soybeans can then be used to create soy milk. However, it is just as important to do your research when looking into a plant-based alternative because even though the carbon footprint may be low, there are still other factors to consider when referring to its sustainability. 

3. Chocolate

Chocolate is made out of cacao and most of the world’s cacao has come from West Africa. However, the culmination of aging trees, dying crops, pests, and weather and political instability have made it difficult for the region to keep up with the high global demand.

Production expanded into South America and Peru and has since made Peru one of the top ten countries for producing cacao. Although this sounds great for the country, it isn’t as great for the environment. The Amazon rainforest is now being targeted to be cultivated, and at least one company has already cleared thousands of hectares of biodiverse forest.

It's hard to say just how much emissions are released for land-use change because companies do not provide accurate measurements. If a measurement for land-use change is included in a lifecycle emissions analysis for chocolate, the estimates are rough. According to Cadbury, a 49 gram bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk has a carbon footprint of 169 grams. The calculation includes the emissions from producing the raw ingredients, as well as packaging and distributing, but not from land-use change.

Deforestation is the main reason that chocolate has such a large carbon footprint. In order to keep that footprint from getting larger, we can buy chocolate that is fair trade, as well as do our research into what companies we should support.