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?
Tracking Antarctica Sea Ice Loss in 2023
Antarctica’s ice extent has reached record lows. This visual details and maps Antarctica sea ice loss over the last two years.
Tracking Antarctica Sea Ice Loss in 2023
Scientists have been tracking the extent and concentrations of Antarctica’s sea ice for decades, and the last two years have raised global alarm bells.
As temperatures are breaking records around the world, the southernmost continent’s ice sheet is visibly smaller than it has been in decades past.
The above graphic uses tracking data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) to visualize sea ice extent in Antarctica as of August 2023
How Much Ice Has Antarctica Lost?
According to satellite data tracked by the NSIDC, sea ice extent in Antarctica has shrunk to record lows.
When compared to previously charted data dating back to 1979, daily record lows in sea ice extent have been recorded for every day in 2023 so far.
Here is how daily Antarctic sea ice extent in 2023 compares to 2022 (which had many of the previous record lows), and the median from 1981 to 2010.
|Date||2023 (km²)||2022 (km²)||Median (1981‒2010, km²)|
Antarctica’s sea ice extent on August 24, 2023 was 1.42 million square kilometers smaller than the year before. When compared to the median extent for that date from 1980 to 2010, it was 2.07 million square kilometers smaller.
Keep in mind that July and August are the coldest months in Antarctica. Its position on the South Pole gives it a very long winter ranging from the end of February to the end of September, with ice building up before melting temperatures arrive in October.
Antarctica Sea Ice and the Rest of the World
Even though the continent is thousands of kilometers from most of Earth’s land and populace, its ice has an important impact on the rest of the planet.
Antarctica’s large ice sheet is able to reflect a lot of sunlight in sunnier months, reducing the amount absorbed by the ocean. The wider its extent builds up over the winter, the more sunlight and heat it is able to reflect.
It’s also important to consider that this ice comes from a regular pattern of freezing and melting ocean water. The more ice is lost to the oceans compared to what accumulates in a given year, the higher sea levels rise around the world.
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