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The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain

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carbon footprint food supply chain

Which Foods Have the Greatest Environmental Impact?

The quantity of greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated by our food can vary considerably across the global food supply chain.

In fact, the difference between specific food types can vary by orders of magnitude, meaning what we eat could be a significant factor impacting GHG emissions on the environment.

Today’s modified chart from Our World in Data relies on data from the largest meta-analysis of food systems in history. The study, published in Science was led by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek to highlight the carbon footprint across different food types across the world.

The Foods With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Worldwide, there are approximately 13.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) emitted through the food supply chain per year.

Across a database extending through 119 countries and 38,000 commercial farms, the study found that, unsurprisingly, beef and other animal products have an outsize effect on emissions.

For example, one kilogram (kg) of beef results in 60 kg of GHG emissions—nearly 2.5x the closest food type, lamb and mutton. In contrast, the same weight of apples produce less than one kilogram of GHG emissions.

Food TypeGHG Emissions per 1 kg Produced
Beef (beef herd)60 kgCO2e
Lamb & Mutton24 kgCO2e
Cheese21 kgCO2e
Beef (dairy herd)21 kgCO2e
Chocolate19 kgCO2e
Coffee17 kgCO2e
Prawns (farmed)12 kgCO2e
Palm Oil8 kgCO2e
Pig Meat7 kgCO2e
Poultry Meat6 kgCO2e
Olive Oil6 kgCO2e
Fish (farmed)5 kgCO2e
Eggs4.5 kgCO2e
Rice4 kgCO2e
Fish (wild catch)3 kgCO2e
Milk3 kgCO2e
Cane Sugar3 kgCO2e
Groundnuts2.5 kgCO2e
Wheat & Rye1.4 kgCO2e
Tomatoes1.4 kgCO2e
Maize (Corn)1.0 kgCO2e
Cassava1.0 kgCO2e
Soymilk0.9 kgCO2e
Peas0.9 kgCO2e
Bananas0.7 kgCO2e
Root Vegetables0.4 kgCO2e
Apples0.4 kgCO2e
Citrus Fruits0.3 kgCO2e
Nuts0.3 kgCO2e

When it comes to plant-based foods, chocolate is among the highest GHG emitters. One kilogram of chocolate produces 19 kg of GHGs. On average, emissions from plant-based foods are 10 to 50 times lower than animal-based types.

Bottom line, it is clear that the spectrum of emissions differs significantly across each food type.

Food Supply Chain Stages

The food supply chain is complex and nuanced as it moves across each stage of the cycle.

Although the steps behind the supply chain for individual foods can vary considerably, each typically has seven stages:

  1. Land Use Change
  2. Farm
  3. Animal Feed
  4. Processing
  5. Transport
  6. Retail
  7. Packaging

Across all foods, the land use and farm stages of the supply chain account for 80% of GHG emissions. In beef production, for example, there are three key contributing factors to the carbon footprint at these stages: animal feed, land conversion, and methane production from cows. In the U.S., beef production accounts for 40% of total livestock-related land use domestically.

On the other end of the spectrum is transportation. This stage of the supply chain makes up 10% of total GHG emissions on average. When it comes to beef, the proportion of GHGs that transportation emits is even smaller, at just 0.5% of total emissions.

Contrary to popular belief, sourcing food locally may not help GHG emissions in a very significant way, especially in the case of foods with a large carbon footprint.

The Rise of Plant-Based Alternatives

Amid a growing market share of plant-based alternatives in markets around the world, the future of the food supply chain could undergo a significant transition.

For investors, this shift is already evident. Beyond Meat, a leading provider of meat substitutes, was one of the best performing stocks of 2019—gaining 202% after its IPO in May 2019.

As rising awareness about the environment becomes more prevalent, is it possible that growing meat consumption could be a thing of the past?

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China

The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns, As Shown by Satellites

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been all-consuming, these satellite images show its unintended environmental impacts on NO₂ emissions.

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The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns

There’s a high chance you’re reading this while practicing social distancing, or while your corner of the world is under some type of advised or enforced lockdown.

While these are necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such economic interruption is unprecedented in many ways—resulting in some surprising side effects.

The Evidence is in NO₂ Emissions

Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions, a major air pollutant, are closely linked to factory output and vehicles operating on the road.

As both industry and transport come to a halt during this pandemic, NO₂ emissions can be a good indicator of global economic activity—and the changes are visible from space.

These images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as well as satellite footage from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), show a drastic decline in NO₂ emissions over recent months, particularly across Italy and China.

NO₂ Emissions Across Italy

In Italy, the number of active COVID-19 cases has surpassed China (including the death toll). Amid emergency actions to lock down the entire nation, everything from schools and shops, to restaurants and even some churches, are closed.

Italy is also an industrial hub, with the sector accounting for nearly 24% of GDP. With many Italians urged to work from home if possible, visible economic activity has dropped considerably.

This 10-day moving average animation (from January 1st—March 11th, 2020) of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe clearly demonstrates how the drop in Italy’s economic activity has impacted the environment.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

That’s not all: a drop in boat traffic also means that Venice’s canals are clear for the time being, as small fish have begun inhabiting the waterways again. Experts are cautious to note that this does not necessarily mean the water quality is better.

NO₂ Emissions Across China

The emissions changes above China are possibly even more obvious to the eye. China is the world’s most important manufacturing hub and a significant contributor to greenhouse gases globally. But in the month following Lunar New Year (a week-long festival in early February), satellite imagery painted a different picture.

no2 emissions wuhan china
Source: NASA Earth Observatory

NO₂ emissions around the Hubei province, the original epicenter of the virus, steeply dropped as factories were forced to shutter their doors for the time being.

What’s more, there were measurable effects in the decline of other emission types from the drop in coal use during the same time, compared to years prior.

China Coal Use FInal

Back to the Status Quo?

In recent weeks, China has been able to flatten the curve of its total COVID-19 cases. As a result, the government is beginning to ease its restrictions—and it’s clear that social and economic activities are starting to pick back up in March.


Source: European Space Agency (ESA)

With the regular chain of events beginning to resume, it remains to be seen whether NO₂ emissions will rebound right back to their pre-pandemic levels.

This bounce-back effect—which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions—is [called] “revenge pollution”. And in China, it has precedent.

Li Shuo, Senior climate policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia

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Environment

The World’s Highest Mountains, And What Their Names Mean

Mountains have inspired humans for centuries. But while Everest and Kilimanjaro might ring a bell, do you know the true meanings behind their names?

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World’s Highest Mountains, and What Their Names Mean

View the high resolution version of this infographic by clicking here

From the Himalayas to the Andes, mountains have inspired and awed us for thousands of years.

Humans have ascribed all sorts of mythologies and metaphors to these jagged geological features. But while Everest or Kilimanjaro may ring a bell, do you know the meaning behind their names?

Today’s infographic from Alan’s Factory Outlet sorts the world’s highest mountains by continent, and explains the detailed origins of their names.

A Mountain By Any Other Name

Out of the 70 mountains profiled, only 41 are actually considered mountains. The rest are technically either a massif or a volcano (or a dome in one instance).

A massif (French for ‘massive’) is produced when a hard, unbendable rock is pushed towards the surface. They can also be formed when magma hardens once it’s above ground. For the rest of this post, we’ll refer to mountains and massifs interchangeably.

The highest mountains on each continent are considered to be part of the Seven Summits. Mountaineer Richard Bass was the first to scale all seven summits in 1985—and the 55-year old did so in only one year.

The Highest Mountain on Each Continent

NameLocationHeightMeaning of Name
Mount EverestNepal/ China, Asia29,029ft (8,848m)After Sir George Everest, former surveyor of India
Nepali name (Sagarmatha): “Forehead of the Sky”
Tibetan name (Chomolungma): “Goddess Mother of Mountain”
AconcaguaArgentina, S. America22,841ft (6,962m)Various native words: “Comes from the other side”, “Sentinel of stone”, “White sentinel”, “white ravine”
DenaliAlaska, U.S., N. America20,310ft (6,190m)Native Koyukon Athabascan: ‘high’ or ‘tall’
Mount KilimanjaroTanzania, Africa19,341ft (5,895m)Unclear, but some suggest it is a combination of Swahili 'Kilma' ("mountain") and KiChagga 'Njaro' ("whiteness")
Mount ElbrusRussia, Europe18,510ft (5,642m)Derived from Iranian mythology for  legendary mountain ‘Avestan Hara Berezaiti’: “high watchtower”
Vinson MassifAntarctica16,050ft (4,892m)After Carl G. Vinson, a congressman from Georgia who supported the Antarctic Exploration
Puncak JayaIndonesia, Asia/ Oceania16,024ft (4,884m)Sanskrit: "Victorious mountain"

Among these impressive peaks, two are technically volcanoes—Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Mount Elbrus in Russia. Overall, it’s clear that a majority of their names have been influenced by the native languages in their surroundings.

The 10 Asian Giants

The highest mountains in the world are all in Asia, with nine of the ten highest found in the Himalayan range. Many of their names are derived from Sino-Tibetan languages, and some have mythological or religious influences.

NameLocationHeightMeaning of Name
Mount EverestNepal/ China29,029ft (8,848m)After Sir George Everest, former surveyor of India
Nepali name (Sagarmatha): “Forehead of the Sky”
Tibetan name (Chomolungma): “Goddess Mother of Mountain”
K2Pakistan28,251ft (8,611m)First surveyor labeled each mountain with a K and number. It has no local name due to its remoteness
KangchenjungaNepal/ India28,169ft (8,586m)Lhopo: “Five treasures of the high snow”
LhotseNepal/ China27,940ft (8,516m)Tibetan: “South peak”
MakaluNepal/ China27,838ft (8,485m)Sanskrit origin: “Big Black”, the name for the Hindu god Shiva
Cho OyuNepal26,864ft (8,188m)Tibetan: “Turquoise goddess”
Dhaulagiri
(*Massif)
Nepal26,795ft (8,167m)Sanskrit origin: ‘Dazzling, beautiful, white mountain’
ManasluNepal26,781ft (8,163m)Tibetan: ‘Mountain of the spirit’
Sanskrit origin (Manasa): ‘intellect’ or ‘soul’
Nanga ParbatPakistan26,660ft (8,126m)Sanskrit origin: “Naked mountain”
Annapurna
(*Massif)
Nepal26,545ft (8,091m)Sanskrit origin: “Everlasting food”
Name of the Hindu goddess of food and nourishment, believed to reside in the mountain

The second-highest mountain, K2 in Pakistan, lacks a more flowery name because it isn’t visible by any locals due to its remote location.

Majestic North America

The highest peaks in this region are scattered across three countries, with five volcanoes, four mountains, and one massif. Denali in Alaska, U.S. boasts unique names across nearly seven different Indigenous languages.

NameLocationHeightMeaning of Name
DenaliAlaska, U.S.20,310 ft (6,190 m)Native Koyukon Athabascan: ‘high’ or ‘tall’
Mount LoganCanada19,551 ft (5,959 m)After Sir William Edmond Logan
(Founder of Geological Survey of Canada
Pico de OrizabaMexico18,491 ft (5,636 m)Nahuatl: "Star mountain"
Mount Saint EliasAlaska, U.S.18,009 ft (5,489 m)After Cape Saint Elias
Tlingit: "Mountain behind icy bay"
PopocatépetlMexico17,749 ft (5,410 m)Nahuatl: "Smoking Mountain"
Mount ForakerAlaska, U.S.17,400 ft (5,304 m)After an Ohio Senator, Joseph B. Foraker
Dena'ina: "Denali's wife"
Mount LucaniaCanada17,257 ft (5,260 m)Named by the Duke of Abruzzi for the RMS Lucania
(A ship he sailed from Liverpool to New York)
IztaccíhuatlMexico17,159 ft (5,230 m)Nahuatl: "White woman"
King PeakCanada16,972 ft (5,173 m)After Canadian surveyor and politician William King
Mount BonaAlaska, U.S.16,550 ft (5,044 m)Named by the Duke of Abruzzi after his racing yacht

Mexico’s highest volcanoes also have a Romeo and Juliet-esque myth that links them. Popocatépetl (active volcano) and Iztaccíhuatl (dormant volcano) are presumed to be lovers, both of whom meet a tragic end. It’s said that the active volcano is avenging its beloved’s death to this day.

Far Beyond the Horizon

Traveling to the southernmost tip of the Earth, you might be surprised to learn that volcanoes even exist in Antarctica. Mount Sidley is the highest, dormant, snow-covered volcano found here.

The only dome on the entire highest mountains list is Dome Argus (13,428 ft or 4,093 m). This is the coldest place on the planet, dropping between -144°F to -133°F (-98°C to -90°C).

Dome Argus is also unique from another angle—it’s the only one on Antarctica with fabled origins, based off the Greek figure Argus, builder of the mythological hero Jason and the Argonauts’ ship. The remaining mountains here are named for scientists and supporters of various Antarctic expeditions.

Under Sea, and Outer Space

All these highest mountains are visible on land, but it’s possible that more secrets remain in the deep blue. The Hawaiian dormant volcano Mauna Kea doesn’t make this list due to its lower elevation above sea level, but it’s actually 33,500ft (10,200m) high from tip to peak—far taller than even Everest.

Everest is still really impressive, but it’s also only a fraction of the size of Olympus Mons, the highest mountain on Mars and in the solar system. New planets are also being discovered every year, presenting further possibilities.

Ultimately, this suggests we’ve not yet peaked at discovering the massive mountains which exist in—and out—of this world.

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