Environmental Education

Read about our Environmental Education with K-12 youth.

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Apr 22

Food and Our Carbon Footprint

Posted on April 22, 2020 at 8:51 AM by Rebecca Crust

In our last lesson about food systems, we talked about the impact that transporting food has on our carbon footprint. In this lesson we will explore how the production of food impacts carbon emissions. You may have noticed in the figure from the last post that production is responsible for 83% of emissions in our food systems, but it is much more complicated than that! Different types of food produce vastly different amounts of carbon dioxide in their production, as shown below.


For a better idea of what this looks like, this blog linked below has ranked food production emissions by type and compared them to their equivalent emissions in car mileage:

In summary, red meats like lamb and beef create the most emissions, followed by cheese, pork and poultry, fish, eggs, high starch veggies and grains, nuts, and beans. At the bottom are vegetables, fruits, milk, and in first place for the least production emissions are lentils.

While going completely vegan or vegetarian is not practical or possible for some, a change in diet towards eating more plants will do wonders for our carbon footprint. According to this article from Lund University in Sweden, one of the biggest reductions we can make to carbon emissions is eating a plant-based diet (next to avoiding plane rides, not using cars, and having fewer children). As a note- when the article’s authors say having fewer children makes a large impact on carbon emissions, the point is not that we should all stop having kids, but that living in a developed nation, such as the United States, is inherently carbon expensive. It takes a lot of energy, from housing to clothes to technology to transport and more, to support a typical American life, which is why cultural shifts in aspects of our lives like diet make a big difference.

Extended Action
There are other choices we can make about our food to further decrease carbon emissions:

Organically grown food – using fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides lowers our carbon emissions.

Buy from small (local) farms – smaller farms tend to use less heavy machinery than large operations, decreasing the amount of fuel burned by vehicles.

Cook food from scratch – it may take longer, but a good deal of energy is put into processing ready-to-eat meals.

Use reusable/recyclable containers – taking your lunch to school in a single use wrapping creates a lot more landfill garbage than using a container you can bring home and wash.

Grow a garden! - simple, affordable, and nutritious.

If you’d like to learn more about climate change in general, check out NASA’s Climate Kids website for lessons, games, and activities to do at home: