Chart: The Carbon Footprint of the Food Supply Chain
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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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Agriculture

Charted: U.S. Egg Prices More Than Double in 2022

This chart shows the increase in the national average price of a dozen Grade A eggs in the U.S. in 2022.

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This chart shows the increase in the national average price of a dozen grade-A eggs in the U.S. in 2022.

Charted: U.S. Egg Prices Double in 2022

Eggs are a staple food for many countries around the world, and the U.S. is no exception. Americans eat between 250‒280 eggs a year on average.

Eggs are also easy to cook, protein-dense and supply many daily vitamins needed for healthy living, making them a popular meal or ingredient. So when egg prices rise, people notice.

MetalytIQ charted the rapid rise of egg prices in the U.S. during 2022, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS).

Eggs-asperating Prices

Over the course of 12 months, the national average price for a dozen large Grade A eggs more than doubled, to $4.25 in December from $1.93 in January.

Egg Prices Per Month (2022)Price per dozen
January$1.30
February$2.10
March$2.50
April$2.52
May$2.86
June$2.71
July$2.94
August$3.12
September$2.90
October$3.42
November$3.59
December$4.25

The biggest culprit has been an avian flu outbreak that resulted in 43 million chickens culled to prevent the spread of the disease.

This led to a severe shortfall in egg supply. Egg inventories in December had fallen by one-third compared to January. Combined with increasing demand during the holiday season, prices skyrocketed and empty shelves became apparent in some states.

This is not the first time avian flu has disrupted the industry.. In 2015, a similar outbreak pushed egg prices up 40% in nine months, reaching a high of $2.97 per dozen eggs in September 2015.

Will Egg Prices Drop in 2023?

Avian flu isn’t the only storm the egg industry has been facing in 2022.

The prices of soybean and corn—the main components of bird feed—account for half of the cost of eggs. They’ve been heavily affected by the war in Ukraine, which has driven grain prices higher.

In the near-term, egg prices are expected to remain high. Containing the avian flu outbreak will remain the biggest factor in determining the prices, but as suppliers increase production, prices may cool off a little in 2023.

Eggs and dairy make up nearly 10% of the average person’s daily calorie intake. Check out the rest of our dietary make-up in Visualizing a Rapidly Changing Global Diet.
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