In August, record rainfall sank in the Dallas area – it fell 15 inches in 24 hours, inundating streets and cars. Rising river waters submerged Jackson, Missouri, left about 180,000 people without fresh water, and a third of Pakistan was under water due to the monsoons.
Scientists report that melting ice from Greenland’s massive ice sheet will eventually raise global sea levels by at least 10 inches on its own. To put this in context, for every 1 foot of vertical rise in sea level 100 feet of shoreline is swallowed if the slope is only 1% or more.
While the plug-in electric vehicle market share is about 12%, according to InsideEVs, the human-caused greenhouse gases driving the climate crisis have more to do with what we drive — much of it has to do with what we eat.
Our food system – producing and transporting food and dumping wasted food into landfills – generates about 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A large part of these emissions is methane, much of which comes from livestock, especially cows, according to the World Wildlife Fund: Beef production uses more farmland than all other domestic animals and crops combined. Livestock feed on an increasing proportion of grains produced from agriculture, one of the most significant contributors to water pollution and soil degradation, and processing of meat and by-products is a major source of pollution in many countries, according to the WWF.
This is why beef tops the list of foods with the largest carbon footprint.
Animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint than plant-based foods, according to Our World in Data. The effect of the food we eat can be measured in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2eq), which means that gases other than carbon dioxide are measured by the amount of warming they cause over a 100-year period.
Beef — and especially steak — produces the most CO2e of nearly all foods: 129.75 kg of CO2e per 2.2 pounds of steak, or roughly 50 kg per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of protein. Mutton and cheese each contribute more than 20 kg CO2-eq per kg, and poultry and pork have lower but still higher footprints than most plant foods, at 9 and 12 kg CO2-eq, respectively.
The easiest solution is to eat less meat, especially beef. Meanwhile, scientists are also working to reduce methane emissions from livestock: anaerobic manure digesters capture the methane gas released during manure processing and turn it into liquid manure; And feed additives, including seaweed, interrupt the microbial processes in the cow’s gut that produce methane.
To reduce your food footprint, the WWF recommends rebalancing your diet to prioritize vegetarian and vegan foods, reduce meat intake, eat more variety, avoid foods packaged in plastic, reduce food waste, grow your own food, eat what is in season, and eat responsible seafood.
Here are the greenhouse gas emissions produced by some of the most common foods we eat, from a list of 211 foods at Our World in Data.
Beef steak has the most emissions: 129.75 kg of CO2 equivalent for 2.2 pounds of steak, 2.4 times more than even a beef burger, which still beats all other non-beef foods.
53.98 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
30.9 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
20.91 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
20.75 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
20.3 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
19.31 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
17.62 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
16.82 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
13.08 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
12.16 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
10.8 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
10.41 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
The following foods produce less than 10 kg of CO2-equivalent per 2.2 lbs:
9.98 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
9.27 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
8.37 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
7.4 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
5.18 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
4.93 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
4.44 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
3.93 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
3.7 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
3.11 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
2.27 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
1.85 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
1.72 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
1.14 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
1.03 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
The following foods produce less than 1 kg of CO2-equivalent per 2.2 pounds, and are among the foods with the least environmental impact.
0.97 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.94 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.88 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.69 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.66 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
Food can also be measured by the water footprint: how much fresh water is withdrawn in production, and some plant foods, such as almonds, are used little. A kilogram of cheese requires 5,605 liters of water, nuts require 4,134 liters, prawns and fish require more than 3,500 liters and beef 2,714 liters. Rice requires 2248 liters. Some of the foods with the least impact according to this measure are potatoes (59 liters) and root vegetables (28 liters).
0.6 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.5 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.36 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
0.21 kg CO2eq per 2.2 lbs
The humble potato is the hero: Potatoes and onions produce the lowest emissions out of the list of 211 foods.
This visualization compares the greenhouse gas emissions of all the foods on this list. You can see more at Our World in Data.
Source: Our World in Data, CCby 4.0