Carbon Footprint of Imported Food: Emissions Importing Food by Miles, Area

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 18, 2024

Woman looking at various transport options wonders about the carbon footprint of imported food and how to calculate food miles, emissions for importing food, largest food importers, food production by country, and other factors.

The carbon footprint of imported food has to be accounted for in the carbon dioxide calculations for a country, a state, or even a city.

Distance traveled for consumable products, called food miles, will differ from shipping point A to point Z and all the short or long-haul stops in between, which is why buying local food can help reduce your personal carbon footprint.

But how exactly does distance contribute to the carbon footprint of imported food?

This article explains the role of the global food import and export industry on the U.S.’s carbon footprint and food supply chain.

Keep reading to learn about the different stages of importing food products that contribute to the carbon emissions in the environment and how the shelf life of some food products influences the trail of the carbon footprint of importing food by miles and by land area.

Why Do We Import Food?

Variety is the spice of life.

It is possible to eat the same thing grown by your local farmers every day, especially if you’re the type of person who eats to live rather than live to eat.

If for you, the taste isn’t paramount as long as the meal fills the gap, then a meal of chicken every day, 365 days a year, is possible, especially if from one farmer you can get your protein, chicken, or beef, maybe even pork, while from another you can get all your vegetables.

Graphics of food supply chain showing the different stages starting from production, distribution and aggregation, processing, marketing, purchasing, consumption, and waste recovery of food.

If you are fortunate to live in an environment and a community where all the food can be sourced locally and provide a modicum of variety and have more than enough to feed the population, then you’re very fortunate.

But what happens if one year the weather in your area turns ugly, the crops don’t grow as plentiful, and as a result, the livestock suffers?

All of a sudden, the reliable food supply chain has been broken.3

This is a scenario that has happened countless times in smaller towns and can only be rectified by sourcing food from further afield.

In large cities, with a more diverse range of inhabitants, supermarkets supply a little bit of everything to satisfy everybody. Mega supermarkets have even more of everything to supply to an even wider client base.

And all that food, meat, fish, salads, vegetables (like avocados), milk, and fruits, have to come from somewhere.

But it’s not just a case of having one particular type of bread, for example. Food intolerances, taste preferences, and dietary requirements require these stores to carry a wide selection of just one product to cater to their clients.

Importing food from more than one source, state, or country is the only option when it comes to feeding the nation.

Importing Food

It was not uncommon in decades gone by for the unexpected population growth in a town or city to exceed the rate at which local food could be supplied.

This need for food security has incentivized businesses to bring in imported food from all corners of the world to satisfy consumers that are demanding higher quality, better prices, and the latest food trends across social media platforms.

Many everyday dishes are creations that combine various ingredients imported from abroad. This is sometimes because they cannot be grown in sufficient quantities in the U.S., are out of their growing season, or can only simply be purchased from a few sources.

It has been estimated that as much as 15% percent of everything consumed across the country is imported because some types of food ingredients just cannot be grown in North America.15

Eye-level shot of the fresh produce aisle in a store showing fruits and vegetables in wooden shelves.

(Image: Melvin Buezo12)

Of course, there is a carbon footprint of imported food, but when the food security of millions of people relies on imported food, it’s not easy to adjust a system that is detrimental to the climate but is keeping the population from running out of everyday foodstuffs.

The climate and geography of the United States unfortunately does not support year-round production of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Very few, if any, country has that luxury.

Bananas, mangoes, tomatoes, and potatoes are all only available on supermarket or grocery store shelves year-round because of food imports.2 Consumers not only become accustomed to having the availability of their favorite foods but come to expect it as a given.

Your average shopper is not going to question how it’s possible to have bananas, tomatoes, and mangoes in the middle of winter.

Food Importers (Carbon Footprint of Imported Food)

The U.S. currency has greater purchasing power in many foreign countries, resulting in importers taking advantage of the fact that importing and transporting food is often more cost-effective than producing it domestically, regardless of the distance.

This gives them a competitive advantage over local suppliers, who have to adjust their profit margins to remain relevant in the marketplace.

This bodes well for consumers who benefit from cheaper prices, more options that they were previously unaware of, and it makes some foods more affordable to low-income families.

Eye-level shot of one of the stalls selling fruits and vegetables in a local farmers market.

(Image: Anne Preble13)

But is there still a price to pay?

Recent studies have revealed that importing food has substantially higher CO2 emissions than previously calculated.

The carbon footprint of imported food isn’t solely focused on the distance traveled. That does play a role, but the way the food is grown or reared plays just as big a factor in carbon dioxide emissions.

Food production whether for livestock or agricultural produce generates carbon footprints based primarily on two major factors.

Inefficient Water Usage

Hundreds of gallons of fresh water are used on a daily basis across hundreds of farms across America and the world, straining groundwater and local supplies. Fruit and vegetable farms have the most water use but unfortunately, a lot is wasted during irrigation, which is another reason why cultivating produce uses a disproportionate amount of water compared to farming livestock.9

The fact of the matter is that 70% percent of the entire world’s annual water consumption comes from agriculture. Of that 70%, approximately 40% is wasted because of inefficient irrigation, evaporation, and generally bad water management practices.14

If drip irrigation was employed rather than sprinkler systems, more than 80% of the water could be saved and not be such a big contributing factor towards climate change.14

Poor Agricultural Practices and Techniques

In parts of the world, large areas of land have been cleared for grazing and arable produce. But it’s not just poor farming techniques that are causing global environmental problems, but fishing ones also.

On land, these subpar practices are causing soil erosion, contaminating the soil with pesticides and deforestation, while many industrial commercial fishing fleets routinely deplete local fish populations.

Sustainable methods have to be adhered to in order to continue to feed the world’s growing populace. At the moment, over 70 billion animals are farmed annually and how they are reared will directly reflect in their individual carbon footprints.

Graphics of common farm products CO2 emissions showing the value of carbon emissions on the x-axis and the farm product on the y-axis.

Product Quantity Water Required CO2e kg Emissions
Sheep (Lamb) 1-2 gallons per day 39.2 kg
Beef 20-30 gallons per day 27.0 kg
Cheese 1kg 3.178 liters 13.5 kg
Pork 5-10 gallons per day 12.1 kg
Chicken 1 kg 4,325 liters 6.9 kg
Potatoes 1 kg 287 liters 2.9 kg
Eggs 1 196 liters 4.8 kg
Rice 650 gallons per lb 2.7 kg
Cabbage 1 kg 237 liters 2.9 kg
Banana 1 kg 790 liters 1.37 kg
Coffee 2,500 gallons per lb 15.33 kg

Over a quarter of all manmade carbon dioxide equivalents are released during food production, with over one-half of the Earth’s arable land already in use for this industry.

Food Miles (Emissions Importing Food Miles)

As the global population increases and becomes more integrated, the variety of foods required for the expanding population dynamic increases accordingly. It’s human nature to want to eat the food that you are accustomed to eating your entire life.

Transportation of those foodstuffs from local fields to foreign tables requires a network of vans, trucks, ships, and more trucks.6

This global food network has to function flawlessly as approximately 32% of fresh vegetables, more than 50% of fresh fruit, and virtually all seafood consumed in the United States are imported from over 200 different nations and territories.

Food miles have become one tool for assessing the global food chain’s level of sustainability because every link in that food supply chain is a CO2 generator.

Transportation by ship is actually one of the least carbon culprits compared to trucking and air transport:

  • Ship Transportation: 30kg CO2 per mile
  • Trucking: 130kg CO2 per mile
  • Train: 75kg CO2 per mile
  • Air Freight: 500kg CO2 per mile

As you can see, there is no real comparison when you look at the air freight vs sea freight carbon footprint. The reason why air freight is used is down to speed. Goods, especially if they have a very short shelf life, are often sent this way if the value is there.

Otherwise, slow and steady international sea freight is the economical and least carbon footprint-producing method of sending goods between countries.

Using an online carbon footprint calculation tool with distance, departure, and arrival points, would display the CO2 emissions for each journey.

Details would need to include the weight of the produce and even the make of the vehicle.

Transport Food and Transport Emissions

Studies have shown that when food comes from international destinations by sea freight, the overland trucking distances are even further. Each food item, therefore, on average travels about 3,000 miles, generating in excess of 500,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis.

Airfreight is one of the worst polluters but only accounts for 1% of food transportation, followed by trucks that are climate-controlled because of the perishable cargo. And these types of trucks tend to emit three times as much CO2 as a truck transporting normal cargo.

As a result, their carbon footprint is larger than that of similarly transported items kept at room temperature. More than a third of all food-miles emissions in the world come from people eating vegetables and fruits, generally when they are out of season in their home country.11

Long shot of a large cargo ship in transit full of high stacks of trailers.

(Image: Ian Taylor16)

But food doesn’t just travel one way into the United States. It goes out as well as comes in.

Why Import/Export Is So Important? (Carbon Footprint of Imported Food)

Developing international trading partners is vital for any economy if the governments do not want to risk any disruption in their food supply chain.

Consumers are accustomed to eating their favorite foods year-round, whether they are in season or not.

Because of this demand, some farmers have become entrepreneurial and grow certain crops in greenhouses or under special conditions. The process is often more costly but it’s not always the best option as production costs can raise the prices of the produce to the end user.

Fruits and vegetables are a prime example of this.

A graphic that shows the top countries with high import/export industries such as Japan, Mexico, France, Russia, India, Brazil, the United States of America, and China, and the top produce each country imports/exports.

To grow them out of season in an indoor setting requires that a structure be specifically built, the infrastructure aligned properly within, and equipment such as heat lamps and irrigation systems installed to optimize growth.

What is a carbon footprint in comparison to importing the same fruits?

Well, this is one of those occasions when the carbon footprint of imported food can actually be less to import from another country rather than grow locally.

Not only that, but even after paying for labor costs, import duties, and transport expenses, the goods from the exporting country can still be cheaper.

This is classed as the seasonal aspect of import/export international trade, where goods are purchased or sold according to growing conditions. In a country as large as the United States, the weather and temperature can vary substantially across states at different times of the year.

Although beneficial in terms that food can still be grown and farmed during those periods, there is just not enough of it to feed the entire nation.

That shortfall of foodstuffs, therefore has to be imported.

And there are some foods that there is always an overabundance of, that grows extremely well, that is an ideal product to export to countries who are missing that staple food source.

Import and export companies are always negotiating to take these products to introduce to their international customers, as well as products that are perfectly fine to eat but for some reason, the local inhabitants just don’t want to eat what their farmers are growing.

Largest Food Exporters and Largest Food Importers

Consumer traits and preferences can determine the fate of a farmer and the quantity of crops that are grown. Yet no matter how good a farmer is, it is outside his control if all his fruits grow to the exact same size.

Take apples, for example.

Every year approximately 480,000 metric tons are imported into the United Kingdom and nearly 15,000 tons are exported.

This may seem a little strange that a country imports so many apples from abroad and still exports locally grown ones.

Is it the taste, the color, or the shape?

None of the above.

Did you know that the average consumer in the United Kingdom prefers small to medium size apples rather than large ones?

This is because they are comfortable and accustomed to apples that fit in the palm of their hand as they are frequently eating apples while on the go. This national trait leads to a big surplus of extra-sized apples that cannot be sold in British supermarkets, not even legally.

The choices facing apple farmers were to either use their unwanted apples as animal feed or for making apple cider, neither as profitable as simply selling the fruit as is.1

Now, a local farmer in the middle of Nowhere, UK is not going to have alternative sources to sell to locally, never mind internationally.

Closeup of a fruit stand showing a vendor taking a piece of apple from the hand of a buyer.

(Image: Erik Scheel17)

This is where a well-connected import-export agent would have the ability to find a buyer in the Middle East where large British apples are considered a luxury commodity.

The carbon footprint of imported food is not going to be one of the company’s considerations as they open up a new, lucrative export market there. In this part of the world, contrary to the United Kingdom, large apples are preferred to small apples.

And where the prices are going to be higher than if they were sold in the UK, the consumers in the Middle East are willing to pay more for what they consider a premium product, especially as they are from Britain.

Import and export companies work together constantly, and both entities are experts in their territories for what food commodities sell best in their areas and at what times of the year.

Just like the changing seasons, they have to adapt their inventory to cater to the requirements of their clientele, as well as the availability of food supplies.

Carbon Footprint of Imported Food

Every year it has been calculated that over 100 billion bananas are consumed by hungry humans, and it is the most popular fruit in the United States.

It is desired because of its smooth taste, nutritional benefits, and the many ways it can be cooked and incorporated as an ingredient in numerous recipes.

Availability is also a factor as, even though they need to be grown in a tropical environment, they are carried in stores every day of the year.

However, bananas require a significant amount of resources to grow, which can raise their carbon footprint. And, after accounting for pesticide usage, irrigation, processing, packaging, and transportation, the carbon footprint of bananas is larger when compared to other fruits such as cherries or raspberries at 0.21 kg of CO2e per lb, but a lot less than melons and pineapples.

One of the things that influence the carbon footprint of this fruit is how much land it needs to grow successfully and be economically viable for the farmer, and also how long the plant takes to bear fruit.4

Closeup of a banana tree showing a bunch of unripe bananas hanging from the tree.

(Image: Jametlene Reskp18)

The life cycle of bananas starts from the ground up and needs large areas of land to grow, not as trees, but rather as tall herbs.

These herbs can grow between 20-30 feet and up to 15 feet wide. Because of this size discrepancy, the number of plants that can be planted in one hectare ranges from 1,600 to 10,000, with 2,000 being the average to allow for plant spacing.

It takes roughly 9 months for banana plants to mature and 3-4 months for a harvest which is a comparatively quick growth period compared to other fruits.

During this time, the plants require approximately 1-2 inches of water each week, and that works out to a lot of water if there are 2,000 plants on just one hectare.

It would be normal to assume that the growing stages of bananas would be creating a lot of carbon emissions, but surprisingly, it doesn’t.

Because so many plants can be planted in one hectare, the carbon impact is lowered. So many banana plants together act as a natural carbon sink, sequestering carbon dioxide from the air which minimizes the overall carbon footprints that are created.

Different banana plantations across the world will use various growing and irrigation methods and pesticide applications, which will impact carbon emission levels, but all of the farms will harvest the crops by hand.

This eliminates the use of heavy machinery at this stage, but not in the processing stage, unfortunately.

Overuse and water wastage is one of the main contributors to the greenhouse gases from growing bananas.

Guatemala, a major exporter to the U.S., receives about 50 inches of rainfall each year. This suits the needs of the banana plant so very little irrigation is required and wastage is at the bare minimum.

Consequently, the carbon impact at the growing stage is relatively low.

Processing and Packaging

After harvesting, bananas must be quickly cooled and sterilized, and this refrigeration stage burns energy that directly contributes to the carbon footprint.

They have to be inspected for signs of damage, graded by size and quality, and prepared for distribution.

They are wrapped with a combination of cardboard and polythene and separated into cartons lined with plastic by size until the weight is approximately 13 kg.

A banana processing plant in Davao Oriental, Philippines showing bunches of bananas on a conveyor with workers holding boxes to prepare the fruits for exportation.

(Image: Shubert Ciencia 19)

All of this is automated and then forklift trucks load the full pallets which are transported by truck to the container port if they are for export.

Once there, they will be stored in a refrigerated container in the port and then on the ship as they set sail to their destination.

Both of these transportation and storage methods emit emissions and make up a large proportion of the banana’s overall carbon footprint.8

Transportation

The use of refrigerated containers exacerbates greenhouse gas emissions during sea freight as the vessel arrives at its destination. From there the container is disconnected, placed on a truck, reconnected, and driven to warehouses for further distribution.

At all stages, the bananas need to be kept chilled and this is one of the reasons why the carbon footprint of imported food is higher than locally grown produce.

Once at the warehouses, the pallets will be sorted and sent out to supermarkets per the received orders.

At the Store

If you know how to calculate carbon footprint manually, supermarket handling and packaging would be included in the equation. Sometimes the bananas are repackaged in cardboard and plastic, sometimes kept loose.

But what supermarkets are renowned for in terms of generating carbon emissions is the wastage of food.

Despite the popularity of bananas, it’s difficult to predict how many will be purchased over the 2-3 days of shelf life that the fruit has.

Due to this unpredictability and overstocking, there is a substantial carbon footprint created because of the need to transport the spoilt bananas for composting and the plastic for recycling if possible, disposal if not.

Closeup of a shelf on the fruit aisle of a grocery store showing rows of banana.

(Image: Gratisography20)

Banana skins are not edible but are compostable. Very few of them are actually composted as they are very rarely separated and are thrown away along with the rest of the trash.

As millions of banana skins decompose in hundreds of landfills in every state, a very detrimental greenhouse gas called methane is produced.

Although millions of bananas are grown in the United States every year, billions of them are imported from countries like Guatemala, Ecuador, Brazil, and Mexico, and as far away as China and India.

The ones that don’t arrive in refrigerated containers arrive in refrigerated trucks.

Types of Food Imports (Fruits and Vegetables)

Exporting all types of fruit and vegetables to the United States is an industry worth billions.

With a population of over 330 million and visiting tourists totaling 160 million every year, food security is a priority.

Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, and Brazil are some of the nearest suppliers, but countries in the European Union, Africa, Thailand, and China are also exporters.

Graphics of fruits and vegetables import value showing the types of food imported to the us and the amount of produce imports in billion US dollars from countries, like Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, India, and China.

The carbon footprint of imported food is unavoidable as supplies come in from these countries both near and far, with hundreds of containers arriving daily in ports all across the country, and only a carbon emissions calculator would be able to accurately calculate individual commodity carbon footprints.

The values displayed for a commodity are not necessarily from one country, but that country plays a significant role in the total cumulative figure.

Fruits Source Value Vegetable Source Value
Bananas Costa Rica $2.5 billion Tomato Mexico $2.4 billion
Strawberries Mexico $788 million Cucumbers Mexico $1.1 billion
Avocados Mexico $3.5 billion Peppers Mexico $1.3 billion
Grapes Chile $2.2 billion Lettuce Mexico $643.6 million
Mangoes Mexico $777.4 million Citrus Fruits Mexico $862 million
Peaches Chile $66.5 million Onions India $589.5 million
Apples China $175.7 million Carrots Mexico $157.2 million
Melons Guatemala $698.5 million Garlic China $243.2 million

The total fresh and frozen fruit imports into the U.S. exceeds $20 billion a year while the yearly value of importing vegetables arrives at a figure of around $12 billion.

Agriculture Food Production by Country

All countries have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to food production.

Growing or rearing livestock may be easier or even healthier in one country compared to another due to farming practices.

A little-known fact is that some countries prefer to import certain food products rather than consume the local variant due to safety concerns. This is because health and safety checks are not as stringent on some local farms whereas for foods that are imported from abroad the food hygiene standards are incredibly strict.

Paperwork, veterinary checks, and quality stamps are often needed before any produce for human consumption is allowed into the country.

Food security and the commercial aspect of the import/export industry is an international business that is booming for these top 8 countries.10

China

With an enormous population to feed, China has no choice but to be the world’s number one producer of fruits, maize, vegetables, rice, cereals, eggs, wheat, and poultry.

Despite having only 10% of the world’s arable land, the country’s exports were valued at over $130 billion.

The United States of America

Not to be outdone, the United States produces 90% of the world’s supply of corn, soybeans, and wheat, both for human and animal consumption.

Over 248,000,000 metric tons of corn are exported annually with a valuation of over $135 billion, making it the world’s leading agricultural power.

Brazil

Brazil is the world leader in cassava production but is known as the world’s largest coffee producer as everyone loves a good cup of coffee.

The country also exports maize, beans, soybeans, rice, chocolate, and bananas, and dedicates nearly 900 million acres of its total land mass of 2.1 billion acres to agriculture which makes it an important part of the economy.

India

India is second only to Asia in terms of rice, wheat, fruits, and vegetables, and is also a strong exporter of fish, cattle, and chickens.

Nearly 6 in 10 Indians depend on the agricultural industry for their income, an industry that is worth $397 billion.

Russia

Approximately 70% of the total food grains in the country are self-produced, the rest destined for export along with wheat, potatoes, oats, and many other products grown on more than 23 million acres of farmland.

France

About 7% of the French population works in agriculture or forestry in some capacity, and there are about 7,300 farms in France, producing grains, potatoes, vegetables, and rearing livestock, with raw milk ranking among one of France’s most prolific agricultural exports.

Mexico

Crops are the primary focus of Mexico’s agricultural sector, accounting for half of the country’s total agricultural output. The other products are chickens, eggs, livestock, milk, feed for cattle, and coffee.

The United States is their biggest customer with about $44 billion a year but agricultural products are shipped worldwide too.

Japan

Rice is the most important crop in Japan and one of the world’s most important crops.

The exportation of soybeans, vegetables, barley, and fruits are some other major agricultural exports that have helped boost the value of exports to a respectable $8.7 billion.

Importing Seafood (Carbon Footprint of Imported Food)

Trading in seafood is just as big an industry as any other in the import/export sector.7 Demand is increasing, shipping and transport lanes are getting busier, and business is booming.

The carbon footprint of imported food like seafood is heavily weighted on the side of transportation. That’s because unlike beef or pork, seafood is not intensive to produce so it has a lower carbon footprint, with processing, refrigerated transportation, storage, and packaging accounting for the majority of the carbon emissions.

However, not all seafood is created equal.

Fish species, fishing methods to catch them, farming techniques to rear them, and final product quality all play a role.

If a trawler that is powered by fossil fuels is going to take more hours to catch lobsters and shrimps compared to mackerel or anchovies, that extra fuel consumption will reflect in the carbon footprint attributed to that species.

Once caught, the particular type of seafood undergoes the same process of being prepared, packaged, and shipped off to its final destination as other food products.

The further that destination, the bigger the footprint.

Multiple modes of transport will be used in this seafood chain, from ocean freight, and rail, to road transport. On each leg of the journey, the seafood has to be kept in a refrigerated environment to keep it fresh or frozen.

Under whichever method of transportation, the primary vehicle is generating greenhouse gases, but then the cold box is increasing the CO2 emissions too.

Still, after all, this has been taken into consideration, switching your sources of nutritional needs, such as protein from beef to fish, will reduce the size of the carbon footprint of imported food that ends up on your plate from all over the world.

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Imported Food

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

A person’s carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide they are responsible for producing as a result of their daily activities such as driving, purchasing food and clothing, cooking, and even doing household chores. All of these contribute to global warming.5

Which Country Is the World's Largest Food Importer?

The United States of America imports more food than any other country and will have a carbon footprint for imported food that is larger than any other country.

What Food Imported to the US Has the Largest Share in the Import/Export Industry??

Tomatoes are the most imported vegetable in the United States with an annual value of $1.2 billion.

What Are the Kinds of Food Imported From China?

Some foods imported from China are fruits, vegetables, rice, cereals, wheat, and poultry.

Read More About Carbon Footprint of Imported Food


References

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16Photo by Ian Taylor. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/jOqJbvo1P9g>

17Photo by Erik Scheel. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-giving-fruit-to-another-95425/>

18Photo by Jametlene Reskp. Unsplash. Retrieved from <https://unsplash.com/photos/banana-plant-R2vgo2Zm3Tc>

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20Photo by Gratisography. Pexels. Retrieved from <https://www.pexels.com/photo/fruits-grocery-bananas-market-4621/>