Based on the largest meta-analysis of the global food system, Hannah Ritchie from Oxford University shows the significance of the individual process steps for the CO2 footprint of 29 products – with exciting results:

  • Regionality plays a subordinate role in the carbon footprint of the food products studied – it only becomes relevant if the food is air-freighted instead of shipped. This is particularly the case for perishable products such as berries, asparagus or green beans.
  • Most of the emissions are due to land use changes (where there is pasture, there is no forest) and farming processes (methane emissions, especially from cattle, but also from rice plants, emissions from fertilizers, manure and agricultural machinery). Seasonal cultivation in the countries of origin is therefore very sensible.
  • The absolute front-runner is beef, with a distinction being made between meat from dairy farming and pure beef herds. The latter generates three times as much CO2 as the meat of dairy cows.
  • For all animal products a considerable amount of emissions falls on animal feed. Of the 29 food products analysed, half with the larger footprint are animal products – and chocolate, coffee, palm, olive oil and rice.
  • Nuts and olive oil are credited with negative emissions for agroforestry development.
  • Processing, transport, retail and packaging currently account for a relatively small proportion of food emissions. But a plant-based diet actually makes a big difference.
  • Milk, eggs, fish, poultry and pork produce only half the emissions compared to red meat, cheese, chocolate and coffee.

For those who want to go into more detail, here are the detailed results of Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser’s analysis of the environmental impacts of agriculture and food production.