Believe it or not, your food has a big impact on greenhouse gases and your food carbon footprint is bigger than you may know! It’s not only the plastics used to preserve and package products, beef and dairy production contribute a huge amount of CO2 emissions (carbon dioxide greenhouse gas) to the environment. And the growing amount of CO2 emissions continues to impact the planet by trapping heat in the atmosphere.
If you’re eating meat and cheese at every meal, your food footprint could be up to 30 percent of your total environmental impact!
Calculate your personal food carbon footprint here:
Everything you eat (veggies, meat, dairy, etc) had to be cultivated or raised, and shipped to you you, and therefore contributed to greenhouse emissions.
However, you can do something about the emissions produced by your diet, by using offset programs to erase the harmful CO2 generated by food production, processing and transportation. The first step is to measure your food footprint.
Environmental Impact of Eating: What’s Your Food Footprint?
At first glance, eating green may seem complex, but in reality, it’s like many other health or sustainability journeys. Simply put, the more you know about your diet’s environmental impact (aka your food footprint), the more you can reduce it.
Food generation emits a large percentage of carbon dioxide (CO2), whether that involves livestock management or agriculture. New studies show that more than a third of all GHG emissions are generated by food systems.16
For example, have you ever thought how much beef it takes to keep fast-food chain restaurants doors open? Or how much water, grain, and acreage it takes to raise the cows that most patties are made of?
On top of it all, sometimes forests are cleared for such farms and consumerism needs.
This cuts back extensively on the world’s tree population, significantly reducing its carbon dioxide-sequestering capacity. In fact, 80% of all global deforestation is a result of agricultural production.17
Then, the beef processing requires energy (and don’t forget plastic to keep it fresh), and transportation to your local restaurant or grocery store. All of that activity combines to make beef’s carbon footprint extremely high, at more than 2x as much kgCO2eq per kilogram than the next largest food type.5 Consuming just one burger a month is equivalent to 32.6 pounds of CO2eq, which is the same as charging 1,891 smartphones, or driving for 36.6 miles.7 Scientific studies have even shown that for the world to “remain within a safe operating space” with climate change, beef consumption in Western countries needs to fall by 90%.7
What’s the Carbon Footprint of Meat?
To elaborate, the average cow eats about 680 lbs of dry matter forage or 780 lbs of air-dried forage.1 “Forage” typically includes:
Researchers have suggested that a farmer’s emissions per hectare are influenced by the amount of land they dedicate to annual forage growth.
Farms with a ‘low/moderate’ amount of land area used for annual forage crops typically emit 18.28 kg CO2e per kg of live weight (LW, the cow’s total body weight) sold.2 On the other hand, farms that either avoid using any of their acreage for these crops or only designate a “very low” amount of space to them emit 21.29 kg CO2e per kg of LW sold.
Note that these numbers are merely a reflection of how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere for every individual kilogram of the animal’s weight. Also keep in mind that carbon dioxide is just one greenhouse gas of many that the agriculture industry contributes. Methane (CH4) is 86x more potent than carbon dioxide, and beef cattle produce 70% of it globally.7
Given how much forage a single cow can eat over its lifetime, the livestock sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can reach astounding levels.
Livestock GHG Emissions
Keep in mind that cows can weigh more or less than this 1,000-lb baseline. This means that its forage demand can rise or fall per acre, both individually and collectively, along with the rest of the herd of livestock.
For instance, imagine that a rancher has a herd of 30 cows. How long does the rancher need to raise those cattle? Well, experts say that the best age for slaughter is 12-22 months old.3 This will dramatically increase their forage demand, plus the amount of water required for maintaining the pasture and cattle and the amount of manure the herd excretes.
With more manure produced, more nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) gets released into the atmosphere. Methane, in particular, has a global warming effect that is 28 times higher than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide is even worse. It has a 265 times larger global warming potential than carbon dioxide.4
Beef cattle account for about 45% of livestock’s CO2 emissions. Dairy cattle are second to these animals at 26%, followed by:
- Buffalo: 12%
- Pigs: 7%
- Sheep: 4.5%
- Goats: 4%
- Chicken: 1.5%
Yet, cows aren’t the only source of meat in most omnivore diets. Here’s a snapshot of how much the protein portion of your dietary patterns contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions:5
- Beef (beef herd): 99.48 kgCO2eq
- Beef (dairy herd): 33.3 kgCO2eq
- Lamb and mutton: 39.72 kgCO2eq
- Pig: 12.31 kgCO2eq
- Poultry: 9.87 kgCO2eq
Unfortunately, even so-called “eco-friendly” dietary habits impose negative impacts on ecosystems worldwide, especially in terms of deforestation.
What’s the Carbon Footprint of Veggies, Dairy and Fruit?
Meat isn’t the only type of food that produces carbon dioxide. Even foods you might not suspect, such as veggies, dairy, and fruit, have a carbon footprint.
Dairy is the biggest sneaky source of CO2, since it also is a product of cows, like beef. In order to get the milk, the cows still need land and grain. This means that dairy, at 9.81 kg of CO2 for every 2 pounds, actually has a similar carbon footprint as other meats, which produce 9.89 kg of CO2 for every 2.2 pounds, on average.8 When compared to beef, though, dairy is still a much more environmentally-friendly option for protein.
Beef produces 44.92kg of CO2 for every 2.2 pounds of meat, which is nearly 5x the amount that dairy does.8 With this in mind, dairy is a better choice, but can be made even better by choosing local dairy farms, which reduces the carbon footprint of transportation.
Also be aware of all dairy products, not just milk itself. For example, here are the carbon footprints of cheese:15
- It takes 21.65 lbs CO2e to produce 2.2 pounds of processed cheese, a car driving equivalent of 22.75 miles, a relatively high carbon footprint
- It takes 21.62 lbs CO2e to produce 2.2 pounds of natural cheese, a car driving equivalent of 22.5 miles, also a relatively high carbon footprint
With fruits and vegetables, the carbon footprint’s main source is transportation, since these are the food items that require the most intensive transportation methods. A recent study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology showed that most vegetables’ carbon dioxide output ranged from a low of .09kg of CO2 to a high of 1.46kg… except for asparagus, which measured at 8.87kg of CO2, nearly 6x the amount of GHG than the next-highest vegetable, and even higher than pork, veal, chicken, eggs, or milk.10
Upon further investigation, the scientists found that this was because tender produce requires air freight, which is very carbon-intensive. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shipping produce via plane takes 50 times the energy of shipping by sea, 33 times that of rail transport, and four times that of truck transport.10
In addition to this, unlike meat or dairy that can be produced year-round, produce is a seasonal crop. This means that in order to enjoy a ripe orange in the middle of winter, produce must be imported from a country in a very different climate zone. This results in a lot of miles, and a lot of CO2, just to get those oranges to you. The average carbon footprint of ‘out-of-season’ oranges relative to ‘in-season’ oranges increases by 51%, 46%, 14%, and 24% for Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, respectively, reflecting how important seasonality is in calculating produce’s CO2 emissions.9
Some of the produce frequently flown into the U.S. are:
- Bell peppers
Because of this, buying produce locally and in-season has a dramatic impact on lowering your produce’s carbon footprint. By buying locally, you do not contribute to the carbon cost of transportation as much. Even though you may not have access to the specific vegetables or fruits you may want, buying seasonal produce is significantly better for the environment.
Even if it is difficult for you to find fresh produce in your specific town, you can make sustainable choices by getting as close to home as possible. Most produce requires to be labeled with their origin, and studies have shown that the carbon footprint of oranges delivered from California to New York City was .5 kgCO2e/kg lower than those delivered from Mexico.9
Eliminating the transport of produce could save the CO2e equivalent of driving 1,000 miles. So, even though fruits and veggies are the least carbon intensive food types, there is still a lot of CO2 emissions to be saved by making green choices.11
What’s the Carbon Footprint of Sugars and Alcohol?
Some other types of food that are not often thought of when discussing carbon footprints are sugar and alcohol. In fact, studies have shown that these produce a particularly high carbon footprint, especially since these two food types are often consumed at restaurants.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield and Kyoto’s Research Institute for Humanity and Nature found that the more a family consumes sweets, alcohol and food from restaurants, the higher their household carbon footprint.12
The study found that eating out releases 1697 pounds of greenhouse gases per household every year, whereas meat consumption contributes only 617 pounds per year. Households with a higher carbon footprint also spend three times more on alcohol and and twice more on sweets than households with a lower carbon footprint.12
The results were so significant that the researcher suggested, “if we think of carbon tax, it might be wiser to target sweets and alcohol if we want a progressive system.”12
So, by consuming less alcohol and sweets, and eating out less, you can considerably reduce your CO2 footprint.
Food Footprint: Role of Deforestation and Habitat Fragmentation
When you calculate your food’s carbon footprint, you should consider the land used to produce your food.
Whether you are on a paleo diet, have a keto lifestyle, or eat according to a strictly vegetarian meal plan, your food needs space and energy to grow. Unfortunately, securing this space means land must be cleared.
Farming accounts for more than one-quarter (26%) of all global GHG emissions. Plus, agriculture takes up a large amount of space internationally. This industry covers more than half the world’s habitable land.5
In addition, 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals go straight to agriculture. This leaves only 30% of freshwater, a precious natural resource that we need to survive, for human consumption. To make matters worse, 78% of the pollution affecting ocean and freshwater sources comes from this industry, too.5
Current agricultural practices present a direct threat to Earth’s biodiversity. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that, of all the 28,000 species that are presently facing extinction, 24,000 are at risk because of agriculture and aquaculture.5
Does a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Help the Environment?
Many people turn to a vegetarian or vegan diet to help the environment, but they may not pay attention to what the carbon cost is of the food that they do eat. Controlling your intake of high CO2 items is still important if you want as low a carbon footprint as possible.
In fact, a 2019 academic review confirmed that veganism has the lowest GHG emissions of all three primary human diet styles. The other two alternatives were omnivorous and vegetarian. Furthermore, the review found that beef production alone exceeds plant-based diets’ impacts in the following ways:6
- Requires 42x more land use
- Demands 2x as much water
- Produces 4x more nitrogen
- Generates 3x more emissions
Of course, eating a non-meat diet certainly imposes a smaller burden on the earth’s resources. So if you’d like to lower your carbon footprint, begin by controlling your intake of beef and dairy, since those two groups have such high CO2 outputs. Even if you don’t go fully vegan or vegetarian, limiting these foods in your diet will help.
No matter how you decide to eat, allowing meat and dairy into your diet or shunning it entirely, you’ll inevitably contribute to global resource consumption in one way or another. But by limiting just these two food groups alone, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint.
Because meat, beef in particular, has such a high CO2 cost during the production process, it’s best to stay away if you want to be eco-conscious with your diet. Of course, if you don’t want to — or can’t — limit meat and dairy entirely, choose local, small farms for the lowest CO2 impact possible.
Comparing Carbon Footprints of Food
Plant-based diets are environmentally friendly, but don’t necessarily eliminate your carbon footprint. In some cases, this dietary choice might make it worse. For example, you might substitute chicken for cheese in a certain meal. Superficially, this is an eco-friendly choice. But the cheese production could very well have required more resources and generated more emissions than the chicken.
Plus, transporting vegetarian- or vegan-friendly ingredients takes a lot of energy, and produces a significant amount of emissions. In some cases, it can produce even more than a local meat producer. A person who drives farther for grocery shopping may actually be contributing more GHGs than if they were to shop locally.
The environmental impacts of horticultural practices to produce fruits and vegetables might exceed meat producers’, too. For example, scientists noted that some vegetarians have an average daily caloric intake of 2,000 kcal. The consumption rate for this eating pattern is 3.81 kg CO2eq per day, or 7,620 kg CO2eq per year from food alone.6
Plus, plant-based diets still require land for crop cultivation. The average vegetarian diet requires less than 0.4 hectares (just about one acre).
Plant-based diets can be better for the environment, as long as you’re smart about your grocery shopping habits and meal plans, and choose the right offsetting programs for a carbon-neutral lifestyle.
How to Reduce Your Food Footprint Right Now
Even though no matter what you eat comes with a carbon footprint, you can reduce your food’s carbon footprint in more ways than you may think.
Even if you eat green as much as possible, with a diet full of the least CO2-emitting foods, there will still be CO2 emissions from the production of your food. In addition to choosing an eco-friendly diet, it’s a good idea to join a reliable carbon offsetting program to mitigate your emissions as effectively as possible.
Offset Your Food Carbon Footprint
There are various methods of offsetting the carbon dioxide your activities produce, meaning that you are somehow sequestering CO2 out of the air to mitigate your output. You can achieve this somewhat through lifestyle changes and efforts, but the most accessible and impactful can be through purchasing carbon offsets. By doing so, you can become carbon neutral.
Yet, individual carbon footprints are extremely variable, so you can’t just use any generic plan. Instead, use a food carbon footprint calculator to find out your footprint based on your unique eating habits and lifestyle. Once you know precisely what your carbon dioxide emissions are, you’ll be fully prepared to offset your impact.
Look for Protein Rich Replacements Like Nuts and Beans
If limiting meat and dairy is a daunting prospect to you, fret not. There are many great protein alternatives out there, and the selection of vegan and vegetarian meats is growing every day. So there are plenty of options for getting your fill of protein, while being kind to the climate.
Here are the nuts and seeds with the highest protein amount, in order:13
- Hemp seeds 9g/oz
- Pumpkin seeds 8.5 g/oz
- Peanuts 6.9g/oz
- Almonds 6g/oz
- Pistachios 6g/oz
- Sunflower seeds 5.5g/oz
- Flax seeds 5.2g/oz
- Sesame seeds 4.8g/oz
- Chia seeds 4.g/oz
- Cashews 4.3g/oz
…and the highest protein beans and legumes, in order:14
- Soybeans 31.3g/oz
- Lentils 17.9g/oz
- White beans 17.4g/oz
- Split peas 16.3g/oz
- Pinto beans 15.4g/oz
- Kidney beans 15.3g/oz
- Black beans 15.2g/oz
- Navy beans 15g/oz
With these heart-healthy protein options, switching over to more plant-based options will certainly lower your carbon footprint.
Eat Green for a Healthier Planet
While the production, transportation, and consumption of food comes with a CO2 cost no matter what, your diet choices can make a difference between being a low-carbon household or a high-carbon one. By choosing less beef, sugars, dairy, and alcohol, you can easily cut your food’s carbon footprint in half, depending on how much of it you were eating before.
Even with the lower-carbon dioxide producing foods that you do choose, there are ways to keep your footprint as low as possible. Opt for local, organic options, cook at home, and even consider growing your own produce. By limiting the transportation of getting your produce to your kitchen, you can cut your CO2 emissions by almost as much as just cutting meat.
To figure out how much CO2 your current eating habits contribute to the atmosphere, use a food carbon footprint calculator. Then, you can see where in your diet you should make changes for a healthier planet.
Plus, knowing how much CO2 your diet is emitting means that you can choose to make your diet 100% carbon neutral, meaning it has no carbon footprint at all. This can be done through the tree planting offset methods outlined above, which are all easily accessible.
You can also figure out your total emissions with an ecological footprint calculator.
By choosing the right foods to lower your food carbon footprint, and using one of the best carbon offset programs to remove the rest, you can help save the earths’ climate, along with every living being that relies on it.
Learn More About Footprint Calculators:
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Food Carbon Footprint Calculator: Find Your Diet Emissions & Eat Green
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2Nieto, M., Barrantes, O., Privitello, L., & Reiné, R. (2018). Greenhouse gas emissions from beef grazing systems in semi-arid rangelands of central Argentina. Sustainability, 10(11), 4228. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10114228
3Beef-Cattle. (2019, September 3). What is the age range for butchering steers? I am trying for prime. National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Cooperative Extension. https://beef-cattle.extension.org/what-is-the-age-range-for-butchering-steers-i-am-trying-for-prime
4Grossi, G., Goglio, P., Vitali, A., & Williams, A. G. (2018). Livestock and climate change: Impact of livestock on climate and mitigation strategies. Animal Frontiers, 9(1), 69-76. https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfy034
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10Haspel, T. (2021, May 3). The Surprisingly Big Carbon Shadow Cast By Slender Asparagus. Culture. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/the-surprisingly-big-carbon-shadow-cast-by-slender-asparagus.
11Carbon Footprint Factsheet. Carbon Footprint Factsheet | Center for Sustainable Systems. (2020). https://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet.
12(2020, January 10). Beyond Beef: Study finds Sweets, Alcohol and Eating Out Lead to Higher Carbon Footprint in Households. Science in the News. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/beyond-beef-study-finds-sweets-alcohol-eating-lead-higher-carbon-footprint-households/
13Whitbread, D. (2020, December 9). 16 Nuts and Seeds High in Protein. myfooddata. https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/high-protein-nuts.php.
14Whitbread, D. (2020, December 9). Top 10 Beans and Legumes Highest in Protein. myfooddata. https://www.myfooddata.com/articles/beans-legumes-highest-protein.php.
15Marie, A. (2021, July 6). Is Cheese Good Or Bad?: 2021 Ingredient Guide For Health, Environment, Animals, Laborers. HEALabel. https://healabel.com/c-ingredients/cheese.
16Vetter, D. (2021, March 10). How Much Does Our Food Contribute To Global Warming? New Research Reveals All. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidrvetter/2021/03/10/how-much-does-our-food-contribute-to-global-warming-new-research-reveals-all/?sh=6efa807d27d7.
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