These days, when it comes to eating well, there’s a smorgasbord of different lenses you could use to assess how ‘good’ your food is. We eat for health, for the economy, for social responsibility, and of course, for the environment. But, focusing on that last one, how can we measure how our meals weigh in when it comes to environmental footprint?
What’s an environmental footprint?
There are multiple factors that go into the environmental footprint of a particular food item. Things like distance travelled, resources required to grow or feed the food resource, emissions that the food emits naturally, waste hazards and more, are all factors that illustrate just how much goes into the food we eat.
What does a low-carbon diet look like?
But integrating environmental footprint into your food choices doesn’t have to be hard. Moving towards a more plant-based diet, with a focus on products that are in season and can be grown locally, will likely leave you feeling healthier, and save you money. If you were curious—and who doesn’t love a good list?—these are the foods with the highest carbon output (aka environmental footprint) per kilogram, as compiled by a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group.
You may not be surprised by the amount of meat on the list, but you’ll never guess which veggie made it onto the end of the list.
Top 10 Foods with the Largest Environmental Footprint
You may be surprised to learn that it’s actually lamb that takes the cake for most environmentally damaging food, not beef. A lot of lamb is imported, which racks up carbon points due to shipping emissions; however, the main CO2 culprit comes from the animal’s digestion, their feed, manure management, and other farming operations. When you do choose lamb, opt for locally raised meat without added hormones or antibiotics.
We’ve all seen Cowspiracy, so I’ll try to avoid sounding like a broken record. But cows, and the copious amounts of gas that they expel, produce an incredibly potent greenhouse gas known as methane. Besides their own emissions, they also require a ton of water and land in order to be farmed. For a cleaner option, choosing locally grown cattle that have been raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones, and chemical feed additives.
Why is cheese so resource-intensive? It’s a blend of the emissions put out through raising a milk-bearing animal, the feed, and animal waste, which has a massive impact on eutrophication (a kind of fish-killing nutrient pollution). As number three on the list, it’s definitely worth savouring. Alternatively, vegan cheese on the market these days is definitely giving the real thing a run for its money, and is an enticing option for anyone looking to eat for a greener planet.
Though it’s tasty, a lot of work went into the B in your BLT. The emissions that come from a swine farm are primarily derived from manure, fuel combustion, and a certain amount of methane which is generated from digestion, similar to beef and lamb. Besides actually raising pigs, the actual processing of pork in factory farms is an energy-guzzling operation. For a cleaner option, choosing locally grown pork that has been raised without the use of antibiotics, hormones, and chemical feed additives.
Farmed salmon wreaks havoc on the environment for a number of reasons. Risking the spread of disease into wild salmon populations, sea lice, fish waste pollution on the ocean floor, feed production, electricity generation, and more, are all factors that work against farmed salmon. Opt for locally fished wild salmon, and products that have met the ‘Ocean Wise’ criteria for the most sustainably sourced seafood.
It’s true, the turkey holiday tradition is not the greenest one. Most of the emissions from turkey production are a result of how much corn is required to be grown just to feed farmed turkeys. When choosing your holiday roast, opt for locally raised, free-run, certified organic birds that have been raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. Or, if you’re feeling extra ambitious, give the infamous vegan ‘Vegducken’ a try.
Similar to turkeys, the main emission source when it comes to chicken comes from the energy and resources required to grow their main source of feed—corn. Besides the feed, emission levels come from transportation emissions, and scat emissions. Choosing locally raised, organic, and unmedicated poultry is a more environmentally friendly choice than conventional.
While the main issue around tuna typically revolves around high mercury contents, canned tuna also has quite a hefty carbon footprint. Most of the emissions are a result of the diesel combustion on fishing boats, while the rest comes from processing, packaging, and transporting the fish. Opt for Ocean Wise certified canned tuna options, so you can trust that your tuna has been sustainably harvested.
Of all the protein sources on the list, eggs provide the most protein for the lowest carbon emission output. As a by-product of chickens, the emissions come from the same source—feed production, on-farm energy use, nitrous oxide has from the poultry litter, and fuel combustion. Choosing organic eggs means that the eggs must come from chickens that are free-range, fed organic feed, and receive no hormones or antibiotics.
You may be surprised to discover potatoes at the end of pollution emitting list. I was surprised to learn that of all the protein-rich plants, potatoes produce the most emissions. And even more shocking, most of the emissions come from the cooking process itself, yet the footprint will depend on how the potatoes are cooked and for how long.
At the end of the day, we’re only human, and we’ve gotta eat. Something that we value here at Spud is bridging the knowledge gap between us and our food. We partner with businesses that are committed to an ethical, sustainable, and community-oriented food system, so that you can feel confident that you’re purchasing from farms and businesses that you can trust.
Do you consider environmental footprint when grocery shopping? How do you navigate making healthy choices that are support a healthy lifestyle, a healthy environment, and a healthy wallet? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!