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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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Visualizing The World’s Failure to Halt Deforestation

Global deforestation in 2022 rose by 4%, reaching 6.6 million hectares.

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Map Showing How the World Failed to Reduce Deforestation in Certain Regions Around the Globe, Primarily in Tropical Regions.

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The following content is sponsored by Carbon Streaming

Visualizing The World’s Failure to Halt Deforestation

Global deforestation in 2022 rose by 4%, reaching 6.6 million hectares. This number is 21% higher than the 2022 target needed to end deforestation by 2030.

In this map, our sponsor Carbon Streaming examines the failure to reduce deforestation in certain regions around the globe, based on data from the Forest Declaration Assessment.  

Most Deforestation Occurs in Tropical Regions

In 2022, deforestation alone accounted for around 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

Nearly 96% of global deforestation took place in tropical regions in 2022. The loss of tropical primary forests reached 4.1 million hectares, 33% higher than the needed trajectory to halt primary forest loss by the end of the decade:

RegionDeforestation 2022, in thousand hectares (kha)Target for 2022* (kha)Deviation from target
Tropical Africa820.0650.0+26%
Tropical Asia1,930.01,900.0 +1%
Tropical Latin America and the Caribbean3,530.02,620.0+35%
Europe1.31.0+26%
Non-tropical Africa0.9 1.2 -22%
Non-tropical Asia18.320.9 -13%
Non-tropical Latin America and the Caribbean118.972.3 +64%
North America126.8 134.6-6%
Global6,560.0 5,510.0 +21%

Note: Based on original analysis for the Forest Declaration Assessment report using data from Hansen et al. 2013, updated through 2022. Only tree cover loss that is deemed permanent (Curtis et al., 2018) or that occurs within humid tropical primary forests is considered here. * Annual targets based on linear trajectory from a 2018-20 average baseline to 2030 target of zero deforestation.

Non-tropical forests in Africa and Asia, as well as forests in North America, suffered deforestation below the target for 2022.

Meanwhile, public and private finance for forests remains far below estimated needs for meeting global goals to halt and reverse deforestation.

More Funding for Forest   

Funding for forests averages $2.2 billion annually, representing less than 1% of the estimated requirements for achieving global forest goals by 2050.

Carbon credits can help mobilize the private sector capital needed to protect and restore forests by providing funds where it is urgently needed. Companies can purchase carbon credits to support critical mitigation efforts outside of their value chains, including nature-based solutions that may not receive funding otherwise.

Carbon Streaming has a portfolio of high-integrity carbon credit projects spanning 12 countries, including projects protecting forests such as the Cerrado Biome project and Rimba Raya project.

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You can make an impact by purchasing carbon credits from Carbon Streaming.

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