The Carbon Footprint of the 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 Type||GHG Emissions per 1 kg Produced|
|Beef (beef herd)||60 kgCO2e|
|Lamb & Mutton||24 kgCO2e|
|Beef (dairy herd)||21 kgCO2e|
|Prawns (farmed)||12 kgCO2e|
|Palm Oil||8 kgCO2e|
|Pig Meat||7 kgCO2e|
|Poultry Meat||6 kgCO2e|
|Olive Oil||6 kgCO2e|
|Fish (farmed)||5 kgCO2e|
|Fish (wild catch)||3 kgCO2e|
|Cane Sugar||3 kgCO2e|
|Wheat & Rye||1.4 kgCO2e|
|Maize (Corn)||1.0 kgCO2e|
|Root Vegetables||0.4 kgCO2e|
|Citrus Fruits||0.3 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:
- Land Use Change
- Animal Feed
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?
Here’s Why the Amazon is So Important for Global Food Security
The Amazon rainforest plays a critical role in supporting crop growth by stabilizing the climate and balancing water cycles.
Why is the Amazon Rainforest Important for Food Security?
The Amazon rainforest is home to 400 billion trees and covers 6.7 million square kilometers, but the ‘Earth’s lungs’, as it is commonly referred to, is so much more than that.
Aside from being a key carbon sink, it also plays a critical role in supporting crop growth by stabilizing the climate and balancing water cycles.
In this infographic, our sponsor Brazil Potash looks at how the Amazon regulates rainfall and temperature and how crop yields can be optimized. Let’s dive in.
Rainfall as a Primary Water Source
“Flying rivers” are air currents that carry enormous amounts of water vapor over thousands of kilometers. These airborne rivers are responsible for influencing regional and global weather patterns, including rainfall.
The Amazon flying river cycle begins with water evaporating from the Atlantic Ocean. Wind currents then transport these vapors across the continent, exchanging moisture with the Amazon rainforest through evapotranspiration. Finally, these aerial rivers distribute the moisture as rain.
The trees in the Amazon rainforest release around 20 billion tonnes of water into the atmosphere daily—this is more water than the Mississippi River discharges in 13 months.
Because only around 6% of cropland in Brazil is irrigated, the region relies heavily on this rainfall as a primary water source to support crop growth that feeds both local and global communities.
The Amazon also absorbs billions of tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year through photosynthesis. By absorbing this CO2, it helps regulate temperatures and lessen the effects of climate change.
According to NASA research, the cumulative effects of climate change, accelerated by deforestation, may result in the loss of up to 11 million hectares of agricultural land in Brazil by the 2030s.
The continued sustainable production of Brazil’s crops is essential to food security, but deforestation can harm these efforts.
How to Grow More With Less
Brazil hosts the largest section of the Amazon rainforest at around 60%. The country is also one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural goods.
It’s essential for global food security and for climate change that crop yields in Brazil are increased in areas already allocated for agriculture, instead of clearing new areas in the Amazon rainforest.
A recent study highlights a significant yield gap in Brazil’s primary export, soybeans.
A yield gap is the difference between actual crop yield and potential crop yield.
The following steps proposed could optimize land usage:
- Increase crop yields: This can be done in part by optimizing and increasing fertilizer use. Local fertilizer suppliers are essential to this by providing affordable and accessible fertilizer year-round.
- Double Crop: Continuing to grow a second crop of corn on soybean fields between seasons to optimize land usage. Additional fertilizer is essential to maintain the soil’s nutrients after harvests.
- Raise cattle on smaller pastures: By streamlining the space provided for cattle, additional cropland can be added to support food for both people and livestock.
The Role of Brazil Potash
Brazil Potash aims to support the preservation of the Amazon rainforest by working with farmers to increase crop yields and improve the quality and quantity of food grown, without the need for land expansion.
By keeping farmers informed of fertilizer’s benefits and supporting a more stable supply of local fertilizer, Brazil Potash will continue supporting farming communities for generations to come.
Click here to learn more about sustainable crop growth in the Amazon and Brazil Potash.
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