climate change food

The footprint of animal based foods

I’ve featured these sorts of images before, but Carbon Brief’s new interactive article on the footprint of different foods is an instructive summary of climate friendly eating.

One again the vastly disproportionate impact of beef is obvious. If you want to do one thing to immediately reduce your carbon emissions, stop eating beef. You can do that today, at no cost.

The top five most carbon intensive foods on the list are based on animal products, with chocolate the surprise entry for its milk content. Conversely, the very bottom of the list is dominated by vegetables that can be grown locally.

Helpfully, those carbon light foods at the bottom of the graph are also the ones you’d want to eat more of to eat well. And those carbon heavy foods at the top are the ones we should all be eating less of anyway. A healthy diet tends to be better for the environment, and that’s a real win-win that should be at the heart of any future national food policy.


  1. Mind you, it also depends on how much of each that you eat. One small lamb chop a month is very different to eating steaks most days.

    1. Indeed, and that’s the best way to think about it in my opinion. It was only a generation ago that beef was for special occasions in many parts of the world, and it could go back that way.

  2. Dark chocolate doesn’t contain milk so it’s weird where it’s ranked. And as a food producer I think there are others that are in the wrong place. But, in general, this ranking is super helpful.

      1. isn’t it largely down to cocoa production often encouraging undesirable land use change? So the right kind of organic fairtrade production could be a lot more benign? Similar arguments for coffee (which I think tends to have high agrochemical inputs, but does it have to always?). And of course the serving size argument applies to both..

  3. Useful info – thanks. Are others finding this a tricky area to properly master, or is it just me? I found reading the whole of the Carbonbrief page very instructive; it helped me resolve some important issues, because I’ve been finding this area doesn’t reduce to simple conclusions. I found this graphic a key one, showing that it matters a lot WHICH farm something comes from – this may be more important than which foodstuff you use.
    For example a lot of nut production is actually be carbon negative, but some can be worse than the most pork or chicken production. But it’s also important to consider other aspects, not just carbon footprint: almonds generally are very bad environmentally due to water use in the dry regions where they grow.
    But I also still have many areas of confusion,for example FoE and others say even RSPO palm oil has a very bad footprint, but an article in The Conversation (by another Oxford researcher) argues that avoiding use of it would be counter-productive as the alternatives would have a worse overall impact:
    So I think it’s important for us to learn much more about how to navigate this vital but complex area; I’d very much welcome learing about other good/wise analyses…

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