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7 foods with a high carbon footprint


With the rapid globalization that has occurred over the past 50 years, the world has increased its capacity to export and import food products from all over the world. It is not shocking that a grocery store in Germany and one in Peru may carry the exact same product shipped from Thailand. As transport has become less of a barrier to market expansion, the growing demand for food products in developed countries, coupled with a growing cultural expectation of availability, has exerted intense pressure to increase production – and increase the stress that humans place on the environment. While many of our favorite foods are harmful to the environment when not produced in a sustainable manner, less harmful alternatives are available to help minimize our own carbon footprint.

It is estimated that approximately 25% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from food and agriculture. Surprisingly, emissions from transport are only 6% of the total, which means that eating local products is not necessarily more sustainable. Meanwhile, land change – the alteration or degradation of land to create farms or fields – poses the greatest threat as it releases the carbon stored in plants and fungi into the atmosphere and prevents the future carbon uptake, while killing and endangering animals.

With the urgent challenge of reducing our carbon emissions by 2030 to avoid a global warming of 1.5 degrees, it is important to know what is the impact of our food on our own carbon footprint in order to be able to reduce our consumption and our dependence on these foods, or seek more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Below are seven foods with high greenhouse gas emissions.


Overwhelmingly, beef is the largest greenhouse gas emitter, producing more than twice as many emissions per kilogram as the second food emitter (lamb). This is all the more destructive given that the demand for red beef has exploded over the past 50 years: since 1961, the total beef production has tripled worldwide and fast food restaurants sell more than fifty billion hamburgers each year. The high potency of beef’s environmental impact boils down to two factors: land use and methane emissions.

Cattle need land to graze and roam, as well as vast fields of grass for food. To create the large fields these animals need, cattle ranchers have resorted to clearing or burning forests and other natural environments to convert into ranches for cattle. This releases drastic amounts of greenhouse gas emissions because these ecosystems, including the plants and fungal networks beneath them, are “carbon sinks” that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release it. use or store it. Destruction of these habitats could release these captured gases and prevent future emissions from being absorbed.

Beef also produces large amounts of methane when it digests herbs and grains through a process called enteric fermentation. If this is a natural process for cows and difficult to avoid, the consequences are dramatic: methane gas, which represents 49 percent of beef emissions, is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide in the short term.

Cheese and dairy products

While cheese and dairy products also come from cows, the cows used for beef production have higher GHG emissions. than those raised for dairy products, in large part because of the amount of land that free-range beef cattle require. Nevertheless, cheese and dairy production remains one of the biggest emitters of GHGs, emitting more than 30 kg of greenhouse gases per kilogram of food. Another bad factor for the environment is the water used to make cheese – about 1,000 gallons are needed to produce a single ounce of cheese.


Cocoa products have high emissions when not sustainably grown. As global demand for chocolate increased, many logging companies resorted to clearing tropical forests – important carbon sinks – to plant cocoa trees. On average, a kilogram of cocoa releases 34 kilograms of GHGs in the atmosphere when they are not sustainably supplied. Fortunately, many new producers are looking to source their cocoa from sustainable farms that do not clear rainforests, and from organizations like the Rainforest Alliance can help consumers choose chocolate from responsible producers.

Farmed shrimps

Although small in size, farmed shrimp have a high environmental impact, mainly due to the change in terrain required to establish their farms. The mangroves, which are important carbon scavengers in Latin America and Asia, are being destroyed to make way for shrimp farms along the coasts. This environmental impact is so great that it is estimated that a 100 gram shrimp cocktail could have the same release of carbon dioxide. by burning 90 liters of gasoline.


Like chocolate, coffee, when not produced in a sustainable manner, has a high carbon footprint due to deforestation carried out to make coffee plantations. Vast amounts of various forest lands are being cleared to meet the growing global demand for their morning cups of coffee. Fortunately, many certifications exist to refer to producers who source coffee sustainably from unchanged land and who pay fair wages to farmers.

Palm oil

Palm oil has a variety of uses – from cooking oil and pizza dough to cleaning agents and detergents. Due to its flexibility and relatively high yield per crop, demand for palm oil has exploded over the past 50 years: palm oil production increased from 2 million tonnes in 1970 to 71 million tonnes in 2018. To meet this drastic change in demand, many diverse forests along the equator were culled to create a monoculture of palm oil farms.

Nevertheless, it is also believed that the use of the palm tree to meet the global demand for vegetable oil has prevented more drastic deforestation as it has a higher oil yield per hectare of land than all other vegetables.


Rice’s contribution to climate change comes from its methane emissions during the growth process. As rice is grown in flooded fields, water prevents oxygen from entering the soil, allowing bacteria underground produce methane.

Fortunately, more sustainable rice cultivation methods are implemented where possible, such as like intermittent flooding, which drains the rice fields for a few days before flooding the fields again to prevent methane build-up. Many recent initiatives, such as the Sustainable Rice Platform, seek to help farmers implement practices that minimize environmental damage and certify sustainably grown rice.

Lasting changes

Many of the foods on this list are important parts of our diets and can be considered an integral part of cultural dishes. It is unfair to have to remove them from our menus. Yet it is undeniable that with current agricultural practices, these foods and the disruptive methods used to produce them contribute to the damage that humans do to the environment.

Reducing our dependence on and consumption of these foods can be an invitation to creatively reinvent recipes, explore new dishes with low-carbon ingredients, or seek out products that are responsibly sourced.

While a big shift is needed on the production side to use environmentally friendly farming practices, consumers can influence this decision by carefully choosing where to place their demand. Channeling part of our budgets from high-emission foods, like beef and dairy, to low-emission foods, like tofu or nuts, could persuade producers and governments to replant their fields to grow crops. more sustainable and more diverse can pay off.

Many ranches and dairy farms in Brazil have already responded to the changing demand and, under the leadership of local initiatives, have replanted their fields cultivate products that are more respectful of the environment and in great demand. The accumulation of small efforts can create big impacts.

photo by Dan Meyers