Overall impact of the 40 most produced foods on the environment

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Getting to know the actual impact of food on the environment is a tricky business. Indeed, depending on the source[1], the farming system at play in the research[2] or the parameters investigated in the study, the overall results may vary tremendously. Furthermore, the “impact on the environment” is more than often restricted to CO2 emissions. Water scarcity, the degradation of the soils[3] or the destruction of ecosystems[4] are to be considered also in relation to the CO2 emissions, as well as the impact of the food chain (farm, packaging, transport, retail) on the overall environmental print of the production of food stuffs. All of these elements do, indeed, contribute to the health of the planet and one cannot be favored in relation to another (a low level of CO2 in the atmosphere would be of little help if the majority of our soils would be too acidic to be used for cultivation).

Why go through the numbers?

Researching the matter may be a tremendous, easily biased and forever evoluting task, the spreadsheet below is thus here published to allow us, as consumers and climate conscious citizens, to take a first step towards understanding the complex “environmental impacts” of food. This step may therefore allow us to realize that there is no systematic relationship between land use, CO2 emission, soil depletion or water use. For instance, the document challenges popular believes that “dairy is better for the planet than meat” or ”sea food has less impact than meat”. The numbers confirming that dairy production would produce more than 2x CO2, and contribute 4x more to the eutrophisation of the soil than pig meat as well as that crustaceans would produce nearly 3x more C02 and contribute 2x more to the eutrophisation of the waters.

Note

As it gathers data from worldwide sources, this spreadsheet is not a set answer which should drastically impact your diet. Depending on the region where you live and the farming practices which the products you buy supports, the numbers may greatly vary.

About the study

This comparative spreadsheet is based on 2 documents[5] included in the research study titled “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” published by J. Poore[6] and T. Nemecek[7] in February 2019 (first publication June 1st 2018) in the american magazine Science.

We will here be able to compare the overall CO2 emissions, the land use, the acidification[8], the eutrophisation[9] as well as the water scarcity impacted by the 40 most produced foods in the world. These numbers are gathered from the largest database to date: 38,700 farms, across 119 countries includes high impact industrials as well as small scale, organic or bio dynamic farms. This study includes all data from farming to point of sale (meaning that it takes the whole food chain (including waste) into consideration).

We greatly recommend reading the document in its entirety (see download link below — 6 pages).

Links & details

🔍📄Click link to read original article
🔍📄Click link to have a look at the graph
🔍📄Click link to download full original spreadsheet

Comparing the data

OVERALL IMPACT OF THE 40 MOST PRODUCED FOODS ON THE ENVIRONMENT
Protein rich products[10]
(for a 100g protein)
GHG emissions
(kg CO2 equivalent[11])
Land use
(m2 year)
Acidification[8]
(kg SO2eq.[12])
Eutrophisation[9]
(g PO2eq.)
Use of water
(kL equivalent)
Beef (meat) 🥩 50 164 0,189 0,177 871
Lamb & Mutton 🐑 20 185 0,087 0,060 1082
Beef (dairy) 🥛 17 22 0,209 0,209 1650
Crustaceans[13] 🦐 18 2 0,060 0,098 1394
Cheese 🧀 11 41 0,149 0,089 4735
Pig meat 🐖 7,6 11 0,083 0,044 1073
Fish[14] 🐟 6,0 3.7 0,025 0,092 1315
Poultry meat 🐓 5,7 7,1 0,064 0,030 402
Eggs 🥚 4,2 5,7 0,052 0,021 556
Tofu 🌱 2,0 2,2 0,006 0,006 139
Groundnuts[15] 🥜 1,2 3,5 0,018 0,011 1431
Other legumes 🌱 0,8 7,3 0,019 0,015 364
Peas 🌱 0,4 3,4 0,008 0,007 353
Nuts 🌰 0,3 7,9 0,019 0,009 1914
Milks
(for a 1L )
Cow Milk 🥛 3,2 8.9 0,149 0,089 628
Rice milk 🥛 1,2 0,3 270
Soy milk 🥛 1,0 0,7 0,003 0,001 26
Oat milk 🥛 0,9 0,8 48
Almond milk 🥛 0,7 0,5 371
Starch-rich products
(for a 1000 kCAL)
Manioc / Yucca 🍠 1,4 1,9 0,003 0,001 0
Rice (flooded) 🌾 1,2 0,8 0,024 0,030 1962
Oatmeal 🌾 0,9 2,9 0,007 0,007 302
Potatoes 🥔 0,6 1,2 0,003 0,003 43
Wheat & rye 🍞 0,6 1,4 0,012 0,007 567
Corn (flour) 🌽 0,4 0,7 0,007 0,002 120
Oils
(for 1L)
Palm oil: 🌴 7,3 2,4 0,018 0,011 7
Soybean oil: 🌱 6,3 11 ,016 ,011 418
Olive oil: 🌱 5,4 26 ,041 ,040 2322
Rapeseed oil: 🌼 3,8 11 0,029 0,019 234
Sunflower oil: 🌻 3,6 18 ,027 ,051 943
Vegetables
(for 1Kg)
Tomatoes 🍅 2,1 0,8 0,011 0,005 235
Brassicas 🥦 0,5 0,6 0,007 0,004 97
Onions & leeks 🌿 0,5 0,4 0,003 0,002 11
Root vegetables 🥕 0,4 0,3 0,003 0,001 23
Fruits
(for 1Kg)
Berries 🍓 1,5 2,4 0,010 0,005 292
Bananas 🍌 0,9 1,9 0,005 0,002 86
Apples 🍏 0,4 0,6 0,003 0,001 140
Citrus 🍋 0,4 0,9 0,003 0,002 65
Sugars
(for 1Kg)
Cane sugar 🎍 3,2 2,0 0,015 0,014 492
Beet sugar 🌱 1,8 1,8 0,011 0,004 170
Alcoholic beverages
(for 1 unit[16])
Beer (5%) 🍺 0,24 0,22 0,006 0,002 15
Wine (12.5%) 🍷 0,14 0,14 0,011 0,004 68
Stimulants
(for 1 serving)
Dark chocolat (50g) 🍫 2,3 3,4 0,017 0,031 209
Coffee (15g) ☕ 0,4 0,3 0,046 0,060 14

Notes

  1. Depending on the various ties that the researchers or institute funding their research may have with the industry.
  2. The research may, more than often, exclusively focus on the american farming industry and its leaders, not taking into account small scale, alternative farming, or legislation at play in Europe or other parts of the world.
  3. For information, food production creates ~32% of global terrestrial acidification and ~78% of eutrophication.
  4. e.g Deforestation, destruction of “submarine forests” such as coral reefs and algae, annihilation of insect and animal species.
  5. A graph and a spreadsheet, to be downloaded in the “Links & Details” section
  6. Zoologist from the School of Geography & Environment, The Queen's College& University of Oxford
  7. Agroecology and Environment specialist, Zurich, Switzerland
  8. 8.0 8.1 The acidity of a soil is defined by its hydrogen potential (pH). Below a certain threshold (~ 6 on the pH scale), the soil is too acidic for most cultivated plants: it limits biological activity (fertility) and its structure is degraded. Indeed, acidity influences the uptake of nutrients and trace elements by a plant, as well as the presence of deep roots or earthworms that structure and aerate the soil.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Excessive intake of nutrients into the water, resulting in overgrowth, oxygen depletion and ecosystem imbalance. e.g. nitrogen + phosphorus
  10. Includes production of food to feed the animals
  11. Including methane for instance
  12. soils or waters (ex: ocean acidification due to fish and crustacean water farming)
  13. 🦐 farmed
  14. 🐟 farmed
  15. 🥜 mainly peanuts
  16. 10ml of 100% alcohol