Image shows a bar graph of food carbon footprint.

Ranking Food’s Carbon Footprint


Carbon Footprint of Food


A carbon footprint is defined as the total set of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by an event, product, person or organization. The carbon footprint of food is the greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing of the food on your plate. Food’s carbon footprint accounts for 25% of each household’s total carbon footprint, so your food choices do have a big impact on your overall contribution to global warming.


Ranking Food’s Carbon Footprint


The Environmental Working Group has released a guide which ranks proteins based on their environmental impact. The chart above shows the lifecycle total of greenhouse gas emissions for common protein foods and vegetables, expressed as kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per kg of consumed product. Lentils top the list of the most eco-friendly foods you can eat. The worst choice is lamb, followed by beef and then cheese. The production of meat, fish and dairy has much higher greenhouse gas emissions than fruits, legumes and vegetables. So eat smart by switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet to lower your personal carbon footprint.


Ways to Reduce Your Food Carbon Footprint


1. Vegetarian or Vegan Diet: As meat and dairy production has a very high environmental impact, you can lessen your food carbon footprint by moving towards a vegetarian or vegan diet.


2. Grow Your Own Food: A great way to save money and reduce your carbon footprint is to grow your own fruit and vegetables. If you have a garden or backyard, then it is a fun and exciting way to make sure your family has access to affordable, healthy, pesticide-free food. And even if you live in an apartment, you can use your balcony or the communal outside areas to grow your foods.


3. Buy Organic and Local: When possible, buy organic or “fair trade.” There’s a better chance the food was grown in an eco-friendly way, and if it’s locally grown, it didn’t have to travel that far. Also, try eating at restaurants that serve locally produced or seasonal foods.


4. Shop Wisely: Think before you buy. Do you actually need this? Can you find a better, greener alternative?  Use a shopping list to avoid those impulse purchases. Check the label: a long list of ingredients usually means a heavily processed item with a high carbon footprint. Frozen food has the highest carbon footprint, followed by canned, plastic, glass, then cardboard. Buy in bulk to save money and reduce packaging.


5. Eat Out at Restaurants Less Often: Cook at home whenever possible. The lighting, cooling, operation of the restaurant, and the energy used to drive there all cost the environment more than cooking that same meal at home. With home-cooking, you can take control of the food you eat and base your meals on fresh, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grains and legumes. You can save leftovers and create a new meal with them. About 15% of the food served on an average plate at a restaurant goes to waste.


6. Pay Attention to Packaging: When out shopping, try to go to stores or co-ops that keep packaging to a minimum. For example, you may choose to buy the loose tomatoes rather than boxed or plastic-wrapped tomatoes. Also, take reusable bags to the grocery store. When it comes to resources, plastic is better than paper — but a reusable cloth tote-style bag is better still.


7. Drink Less Bottled Water: Bottled water has a huge carbon footprint — it’s bottled at one location in small plastic bottles and shipped all over. Many plastic water bottles are recycled, but most are not, making the footprint even bigger. Try buying a reusable water bottle, thermos or canteen for your water. Producing the bottles for US consumption of bottled water for one year requires the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil. Bottling this water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. It takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.


8. Drink Fewer Soft Drinks: Soft drinks are carbonated sugar water in a plastic bottle or an aluminum can. 200 billion beverage containers were sold last year — and over 130 billion of those ended up in landfills or incinerators. If all of the beverage containers discarded last year had been recycled, 15.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases would have been avoided.


9. Eat Seasonal and Local Fruits and Vegetables (When Possible): Fresh fruits sold in the winter are often imported or grown in greenhouses, both of which require significant energy use. Importing food by air has a carbon footprint 6 times larger than by ground.


10. Eat Fewer Packaged Snacks and Junk Food: The boxes, bags and packets that hold our food account for 10-12% of the cost of our food products. More than half of all plastic packaging is used to package food. One third of the energy used to produce food goes to snacks, candy and soft drinks.


11. Upgrade to an energy efficient refrigerator: The refrigerator uses up to 5 times as much electricity as the television. Switching to an Energy Star certified refrigerator will save you money and reduce your CO2 emissions.


12. Cooking Efficiently: Did you know that a gas oven only uses 6% of its energy to cook? An electric oven is not much better at 12%. The microwave uses 50% less energy than an oven. Use the oven sparingly and efficiently such as reducing preheating, cooking multiple foods and turning off promptly. The most efficient cooking method is simmering on the stove-top. Eat more raw foods that do not need cooking and use the stove-top whenever possible.

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