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Environmental impact of 20 foods

Stacker Logo By E.A. Crunden of Stacker | Slide 1 of 21: When it comes to the food we eat, the world is rapidly approaching a moment of reckoning. A major study released in August 2019 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that human reliance on agriculture is accelerating global warming. Food production—coupled with forestry and other land use—account for almost a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of that is due to livestock. Cows, in particular, are heavy producers of the potent gas methane, which can trap heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide and stands as a significant contributor to climate change. Experts involved with the project emphasized the planetary benefits of cutting back on meat, although IPCC’s authors stopped short of advising a mass shift to vegetarian and vegan diets. But what about the environmental impact of other foods?

That answer varies, according to a 2011 study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan environmental health research organization. For the report, “A Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health,” researchers modeled the greenhouse gas emissions created during the life cycle of common American foods, from production and transport to retail, cooking, and waste disposal. With that data, Stacker created the following gallery to illustrate the environmental impact of 20 common foods, ranked according to the carbon dioxide emitted in the full life cycle of 2.2 pounds of said dish.

Some of the results may be surprising. 2019's IPCC report singled out livestock for a reason—but EWG’s findings show that not all greenhouse-gas-intensive foods involve meat or dairy. Those parts of the cycle add up, making some popular foods more detrimental to the environment than many people think.

While EWG’s report has implications for most diets, the organization’s findings also indicate that cutting out meat alone won’t solve serious global problems (even if some culinary choices might help more than others). Read on to discover the impacts of 20 common foods—including several with carbon footprints that can be easily diminished by buying local.

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Environmental impact of 20 foods

When it comes to the food we eat, the world is rapidly approaching a moment of reckoning. A major study released in August 2019 by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that human reliance on agriculture is accelerating global warming. Food production—coupled with forestry and other land use—account for almost a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

Much of that is due to livestock. Cows, in particular, are heavy producers of the potent gas methane, which can trap heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide and stands as a significant contributor to climate change. Experts involved with the project emphasized the planetary benefits of cutting back on meat, although IPCC’s authors stopped short of advising a mass shift to vegetarian and vegan diets. But what about the environmental impact of other foods?

That answer varies, according to a 2011 study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan environmental health research organization. For the report, “A Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health,” researchers modeled the greenhouse gas emissions created during the life cycle of common American foods, from production and transport to retail, cooking, and waste disposal. With that data, Stacker created the following gallery to illustrate the environmental impact of 20 common foods, ranked according to the carbon dioxide emitted in the full life cycle of 2.2 pounds of said dish.

Some of the results may be surprising. 2019's IPCC report singled out livestock for a reason—but EWG’s findings show that not all greenhouse-gas-intensive foods involve meat or dairy. Those parts of the cycle add up, making some popular foods more detrimental to the environment than many people think.

While EWG’s report has implications for most diets, the organization’s findings also indicate that cutting out meat alone won’t solve serious global problems (even if some culinary choices might help more than others). Read on to discover the impacts of 20 common foods—including several with carbon footprints that can be easily diminished by buying local.

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