Most likely, you know the “dirty dozen.” It’s the list of foods with the highest pesticide residue, which is why you choose their organically grown versions whenever possible. But if you’re a concerned consumer, there’s a new list you need to know: the worst foods for the environment.
While oil draws the ire of environmentalists everywhere (and for valid reasons), it’s not the only big, bad wolf that comes from the ground. According to one University of Oxford study, a whopping one-quarter of global emissions comes from the food we produce. That’s a scary number, isn’t it? The good news is, even a simple change in your diet can substantially reduce your food carbon footprint.
To help you make all the right choices, we’ve rounded up the 12 biggest offenders, broken down by category. We’ve also offered some smart alternatives, so you’ll never go hungry.
The 12 Worst Foods for the Environment
Meats and Seafood
Unfortunately for meat-eaters, the environmental impact of meat is one of the worst, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council study. Remember we said one-quarter of global emissions is from food. Well, half of that can be attributed to animal products. More specifically, beef and lamb make up half of all farm-animal emissions. Here’s why:
Between the feed they require and the methane they produce, beef production takes the hardest toll on the earth of any food available. You see, cows are ruminants, which means they are among the few species that can obtain nutrients from plant-based foods by fermenting it first.
This fermentation process produces a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25-times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2). Thus, cows create the highest food carbon footprint. In fact, one pound of beef translates to 57 pounds of CO2, the equivalent of burning 2.6 gallons of fuel in your car.
Cattle also require more land and resources than almost any other farm animal. For every pound of beef that makes it to market, 10 to 14 pounds of feed is consumed. Not only is this inefficient, but it has resulted in deforestation, as farmers make way to plant more corn and soy to feed the cattle.
Another ruminant, sheep cause many of the same problems as cows. They are often overlooked, though, simply because of their smaller size. In reality, lamb have only a slightly lower carbon footprint at 55 pounds of CO2 per pound of meat.
Maybe you’ve already reduced your red meat consumption and replaced it with lighter seafood fare, like shrimp and lobster. Kudos to you – especially if you’ve lost unwanted weight! But take note shellfish still levies a significant toll on the planet. Every pound of shellfish puts 24 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The internet may love bacon, but does Mother Nature? Like it or not, pork does put a strain on the environment, albeit small. At 17 pounds of CO2 per pound of meat, a pan of bacon is not quite as hard on the planet as it is on your waistline.
For dedicated carnivores, switching to chicken is the way to go. Producing just 11 pounds of CO2 per pound of meat, the only animal protein that’s more environmentally friendly than chicken is fish.
Fish have one of the lowest CO2 emissions per pound of all meat at 7.5lbs. However, it’s best to avoid tuna and salmon. Tuna is overfished, resulting in a declining population of the species, and most salmon is farmed, which has its own ecological impacts.
What you can do today:
- Try replacing that steak on your plate with a grilled chicken breast or wild-caught fish. Not only are these healthier meat options, but you can actually reduce your environmental footprint by a whopping 44 pounds of CO2 (per pound of meat)!
- Also, try swapping those meat-based meals for beans or legumes. They’re high in protein and can be thrown into a variety of tasty vegetarian or vegan recipes.
Fruits and Vegetables
While cutting out meat and dairy can help lower your food carbon footprint, there are certain fruits and vegetables you might want to avoid. Generally speaking, agriculture has an impact on the environment, but the following produce is more detrimental than others.
Asparagus is one of the few vegetables with a heavy carbon footprint, costing a surprising 19.6 pounds of CO2 per pound. That, according to experts, has less to do with cultivation and more to do with the CO2 produced during transportation. Much of the asparagus eaten by Americans comes from South America and is flown from farm to store.
Avocados may not produce much CO2, but their need for water is prodigious. When they’re grown in their native, tropical climates, the water they need comes naturally. However, when grown in drought-prone California (where most American-consumed avocados come from), the resources are much more scarce.
Not only are bananas brought in from South America, but their spoilage rates are high, according to a Swedish study. In this study, bananas produced the highest wasted mass for grocers and the highest environmental cost due to this waste.
On the bright side, overripe bananas are easily frozen and a great option for baking or throwing into smoothies. By purchasing brown bananas, you help reduce kitchen waste, while supporting the planet’s health – not to mention, your own!
What you can do today:
Vegetables have the lowest impact on the environment. So if you already follow a plant-based diet, you’re doing the earth a huge favor. Want to reduce your environmental impact even more? Focus on:
- Buying your fruits and vegetables seasonally to reduce waste.
- Buying local produce to reduce transportation costs.
Carbohydrates and Other Foods
Lately, many people are avoiding carbohydrates to follow a keto diet plan, but carbs are surprisingly easy on the environment. Most cereal grains only produce 1.1 pounds of CO2 per pound of food, which is far below meats, dairy and even hot-house-grown vegetables. However, this does not mean that all carbs are created equal. Below are carb-rich foods that are the most harmful:
A standout among carbs, rice takes a higher toll on the environment. According to Oxfam, rice cultivation makes up a staggering one-third of annual freshwater-use for the globe. Thankfully, new methods of rice cultivation are drastically reducing water usage, leading to much more sustainable farming practices.
It’s well known sugar has a host of negative impacts on your health, but fewer know the toll sugar production takes on the environment. Not only does sugar require a large amount of water to produce (88 gallons is needed to produce just five pounds of sugar), the fertilizer-heavy cultivation often results in chemicals leaching into freshwater rivers and streams.
The dairy industry poses many of the same environmental problems as beef does, since it comes from the same source. But because you can get milk on an ongoing basis from a dairy cow, the carbon footprint is much lower. Milk can be as low as 2.6 pounds of CO2 per pound of food. Meanwhile, butter is at the high end, producing up to 26.5 pounds!
What you can do today:
- It is virtually impossible to completely avoid sugar, but you can greatly reduce your consumption by avoiding processed food and relying on whole grains.
Eating for the Environment
Before you adopt veganism or boycott asparagus, take a moment to evaluate what you actually eat on a regular basis. While the stats above are true and somewhat alarming, they are based on averages. The most accurate way to determine your personal food carbon footprint is to learn your food’s origin story.
The time spent in transport especially effects the environmental impact of meat. For example, high-impact beef producers create a whopping 231.5 pounds of CO2 per pound of meat. That is 12 times greater than beef producers on the low end of the spectrum. The trick, of course, is knowing which is which and how to find those low-impact meat producers.
Unfortunately, product packaging is not often helpful in identifying the worst foods for the environment. However, buying from a local vendor ensures the meat – or vegetable – has traveled less distance; therefore, it has produced less CO2.
Ultimately, your best bet is to eat less meat and buy from local, reputable food suppliers who care about the environment as much as you do.