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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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5 Drivers Behind the Sustainable Investing Shift

Sustainable investing in the U.S. is smashing records, with $20.9 billion of net flows in H1’2020. Here are 5 key drivers behind this growth.

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5 Drivers Behind the Sustainable Investing Shift

View the high resolution infographic by clicking here.

Against all odds, sustainable investing in the U.S. smashed records in 2020.

Estimated net flows reached $20.9 billion in the first six months alone—that’s nearly equal to the amount of new money invested in all of 2019.

What is driving the shift to sustainable investing? This visual dashboard from Raconteur explains five key drivers, from generational shifts to investors’ preferred strategies.

DRIVER #1:

Millennial Investors and Personal Beliefs

Interest in sustainable investing is booming across the general population. However, there’s a clear generational trend, as well.

While the portion of each group that is “very interested” in sustainable investing has shot up since 2015, this share is significantly higher for millennials.

YearGeneral PopulationMillennials
201519%28%
201723%38%
201949%70%

Another correlated trend emerges with this.

These days, investors are more likely to follow their conscience. Acccording to a recent report by Schroders, the majority of investors will not budge on investing against their beliefs, even if returns were theoretically higher.

 Level of Investment Knowledge
Would you invest against your personal beliefs?BeginnerIntermediateExpert
Yes, if returns are higher18%20%29%
No, I would not invest against my beliefs.82%80%71%
DRIVER #2:

Top Themes of Interest

Powered by these personal beliefs, which categories are attracting investors? It turns out many investors are very interested in including environment-related themes into their portfolios:

  • Plastic reduction: 46%
  • Climate change: 46%
  • Community development: 42%
  • Circular economy: 39%
  • Sustainable Development Goals: 36%
  • Multicultural diversity: 30%
  • Gender diversity: 30%
  • Faith-based values: 24%

However, these aren’t the only considerations. Other themes that fit into broader ESG categories such as gender diversity or faith-based values make an appearance, too.

DRIVER #3:

Which Investor Groups are Driving Interest?

Now, we turn our attention to the specific groups that are responsible for the growing momentum towards sustainable investing. This may be surprising to some, but it is institutional investors that are leading the pack by far:

GroupShare of Group
Institutional investors85%
Institutional consultants39%
Internal stakeholders30%
High net worth (HNW) investors19%
Politicians or regulators13%
Industry trade bodies6%

This also disproves a common myth that millennials are the only ones interested in the sector. Institutional investors equally want to see a double bottom line: an ROI on their money, while also making the world a more sustainable place.

DRIVER #4:

Sources of Information

So where are institutional investors sourcing their information around sustainable investing? Sharing their ideas in like-minded communities, such as webinars and conferences emerged as the preference for nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in this group.

But how do investors know that their investment is truly sustainable? For this, 34% of global investors feel that third-party labels from independent organizations help lend credibility, and confirm that the chosen investment in question is indeed carried out in a responsible manner.

As more and more institutional investors are digital natives, a significant share of them are also beginning to use social media to influence their decision-making process—and some even rely on it as their key source of research.

DRIVER #5:

Sustainable Investing Strategies

We’ve left the best for last—armed with this knowledge and confidence, which sustainable investing strategies are the most attractive? Here’s how organizations are approaching ESG:

  • Sustainability integration: 52%
  • Negative screening: 50%
  • Shareholder engagement: 31%
  • Impact investing: 19%
  • Positive screening: 12%
  • Thematic investing: 5%

While negative screening—avoiding investments in “sin” stocks such as tobacco or fossil fuels—is still a popular strategy, actively integrating sustainability into one’s portfolio is emerging more front and center.

The Overall Trend of Sustainable Investing

The data makes clear that institutional investors are the main driving forces behind sustainable investment for the time being. But as millennials accumulate wealth, their values may naturally lead them towards more sustainable investment.

Another important point to note is that sustainable investing has been resilient to change. In fact, despite the COVID-induced stock selloff in early 2020, ESG leaders exceeded expectations.

While these drivers evolve over time, it’s clear that sustainable investing is more than having its moment in the spotlight—it’s here to stay.

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Mapped: Which Countries Have the Worst Air Pollution?

This population-weighted cartogram shows the countries with the worst air pollution, based on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration.

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Mapped: Which Countries Have the Worst Air Pollution?

View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.

In many parts of the world, blue skies are a rarity. Instead, accumulated levels of air pollution from industrial processes and motor vehicle traffic cloak cities in smog year-round.

But to what extent does air pollution impact the human population around the world?

To answer this question, data scientist Matt Dzugan has created a cartogram that shades each country based on levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution experienced by the population living there.

Carto-What?

First off, let’s talk about the visualization style itself.

Not your everyday map, this unconventional cartogram resizes the borders of countries based on their total populations. In this style, a single square represents 500,000 people. According to Matt Dzugan, the cartogram view is meant to provide a bird’s eye perspective of the impact of air pollution and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) on human lives.

A clear correlation emerges: some of the most inhabited places in the world also experience the most pollution. Highly populated China and India show up the most prominently, while other countries like Australia and Canada seem to disappear off the map entirely.

To put this into perspective, 800 dark brown squares on this cartogram (a PM2.5 concentration of 50 μg/m³) represent 400 million people in India that are exposed to polluted air at levels five times past thresholds set by the World Health Organization.

Top 20 Countries with Cleanest Air

So how do countries on each end of the PM2.5 spectrum shake out? Pulling supplemental data from the WHO, here’s how the top 20 countries with the cleanest air rank.

Countries with the Cleanest Air Supplemental

New Zealand tops the above list. And as you can see, air quality tends to be highest in advanced coastal economies with low population densities—and being an island or bordering less habitable Arctic tundra also helps as well.

That said, there are temporary bouts when air quality can dip in even the best of countries. For example, recent wildfires on the West Coast of the United States and Australia resulted in reddish-orange skies and hazardous levels of air quality for weeks at a time.

The 20 Countries with the Most Air Pollution

On the other hand, it may be surprising that Nepal lands all the way at the bottom of the air quality list. Why is this landlocked country—home to less than 30 million—suffering from hazardous air pollution reaching 100μg/m³?

In short, the emissions from fossil-fuel driven traffic and manufacturing operations are trapped within the Kathmandu valley, which causes air quality issues for people living in the region.

Countries with the Most Air Pollution

The regions with lower air quality tend to be more landlocked with developing economies, such as some countries in central Africa and Asia, as well as in the Middle East.

Finally, while China is lower on this overall list, it’s worth noting that it is one of the most prominent on the cartogram due to its sheer population size.

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