The Three R's
Amy Valm
Jan 4
The Surprising Carbon Footprint of Food - The Truth About Your Diet and the Climate

What you eat matters. And not just from a health POV. 

We look at a burger and fries and see something delicious, ready to consume. But what most of us don’t give a lot of thought to is that meal’s origin story.

It’s the potatoes in the ground that became those fries, the all-beef patty, the wheat grown for the bun, the sesame seeds imported from somewhere, and everything in between that all have a ripple effect.

And the wake from those ripples goes a lot further than you might think. 

The food supply chain is responsible for about a quarter of all worldwide GHG emissions.

What's the carbon footprint of food?

Food’s carbon footprint—also called a foodprint—includes the greenhouse gases (GHGs) associated with every facet of food production. It all counts, from seed to compost: growing, farming, marketing, transporting, storing, cooking and, yes, even disposing.

How big is the carbon footprint of food?

Naturally, foods all map differently. But overall, their carbon footprint is extra large.

The unpalatable truth? The food supply chain is responsible for about a quarter of all worldwide GHG emissions.

The convenient truth is that there are plenty of things you can do to make a difference. Easy things, like making simple dietary changes, not wasting food, buying in bulk and using less plastic. We’re going to give you useful tips to help reduce that food-related carbon footprint. Get out your forks, because we’re about to dig in.

Cauliflower growing in a patch
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

What causes food’s big carbon footprint?

There are a lot of factors, but two major ones stand out: animal agriculture and food waste.

1. Animal Agriculture

Think of agriculture in farm-to-table terms. But unless you know the lady next door with the chickens, the journey isn’t as direct as it sounds. A piglet born in a barn is one thing, but the resources needed to turn it into your bacon sandwich are where the effects start to accumulate.

We’re talking about things like growing the food to feed that animal (both because of land use and because of fertilizers), the electricity that powers its home, the water it drinks, the manure it leaves behind and the actual carbon emissions of said little piggy and its trip to market.

It’s maintaining an office to work on marketing and a factory for manufacturing. It’s the trucks, planes and ships that transport the processed product to the shelves of the store that you drove to. It’s the plastic packaging around those slices of bacon. It’s the power needed to preserve the food in your fridge and the gas your stove needs to cook it. 

Food's carbon footprint is twofold: the resources used to produce it, and the way it decays.

Eating local has many benefits, but climate-wise, it doesn’t make as much of a difference as most people think.

On average, your food’s trek to the store only counts for about 6 percent of its overall carbon footprint. The exception is foods that rack up frequent flyer miles, which have a massive carbon footprint—about 50 times that of travelling by sea. Foods transported by air are not always easy to identify, but it’s usually things that are highly perishable and out of season, like fresh raspberries in January.)

2. Food Waste

And then there’s food waste, whose carbon footprint is twofold: the resources used to produce it, and the way it decays.

And this isn’t small change—food loss and waste represents 8 percent of the world’s GHG emissions. Now that you’ve deep-dived food’s exhaustive journey to your crisper drawer, throwing stuff out hits a bit differently. Food waste is pretty easy to conquer and has an almost-instant carbon footprint reduction: Wasting less means buying less.

Five Jersey cows grazing a pasture, symbolizing the impact of animal agriculture on climate change.
Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

How to change your diet and reduce your carbon footprint

1. Reduce your consumption of meat

Apologies to your meat-lover’s pizza, but the greatest way to shrink food’s carbon footprint is to cut back on animal products.

Beef is delicious, agreed. Steak with chimichurri! Burgers on the grill! It’s an summertime institution.

But these meals have an impact that lasts much longer than they kept you full. The fact is, many cows are raised on deforested land, as is a lot of the feed that they’re fattened up on.

They need a lot of water and energy to get full-grown, and the fertilizer used to grow their food creates emissions, too. Plus, cows produce a lot of methane gas. Having four stomachs will do that to you.

Emissions-wise, if the average American family of 4 halved their beef intake, it would be like not driving for 6 months.

According to one recent article in the New York Times, we need to make serious changes to the global food system to meet emissions targets and keep climate change to a best-case scenario.

The changes they mention? Reducing food waste is one, as is boosting crop yields. Also extremely important: a significant reduction in global consumption of animal foods, especially red meat.

The good news? It’s not vegan or nothing.

Simply making some switches from higher-emission foods to lower-emission, like making meatless meals a more regular thing in your household—regularly, if not all the time—is hugely impactful. (The BBC offers this helpful chart to guide you toward more climate-friendly meal planning.)

Yellow pepper, brussel sprouts, potatos, yams and broccoli, all low carbon food items.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

2. Consider a vegetarian or vegan diet

It’s time to throw away what you might think about vegetarian and vegan diets. It’s not a club of condescending leaf eaters with zero fun (or protein) in sight, and it’s not just noodles with tomato sauce, either.

For many cultures, plant-based eating is the status quo. Take India, where 38 percent of the population is vegetarian, or Ethiopia, where many dishes just happen to be vegan.

Meat-free eating has deep roots in many cuisines. And you don’t have to go whole hog: you can take baby steps to reduce your meat intake. Start with Meatless Monday and make a dal or dinich wot, an Ethiopian potato stew.

On the nutrition front, vegan and vegetarian diets are perfectly healthy so long as you’re not subsisting on nothing but French fries and soda. Don’t believe us? Venus Williams and Colin Kaepernick both eat mostly plants, and no one’s worried about their ability to build muscle. And have you heard of German bodybuilding champ Patrik Baboumian?

He’s vegan, and he can flip cars.

Now that we’ve covered some climate-friendly food facts, let’s break down three common myths.

Myths about adopting a low carbon footprint diet

Myth #1: It’s hard to get protein on a plant-based diet and I won’t feel full.

Reality: Plants have plenty of protein, as long as you eat a varied and balanced diet.

Look at the evidence: if pro athletes can thrive while eating vegan, then surely we couch surfers and weekend warriors can, too. (If you want to learn more about plant-based nutrition, the books Becoming Vegetarian and Becoming Vegan by dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina are thorough, science-based and very well respected.)

Varied and balanced goes for feeling full, as well. One trick is to ensure all your meals include foods rich in protein, fat and fiber, rather than just carb-loading at every opportunity. Legumes, nuts and seeds are your friends here.

Venus Williams & Colin Kaepernick both eat mostly plants, and no one’s worried about their ability to build muscle.

That might mean lentil soup with a drizzle of olive oil, or quinoa in kale salad with some pumpkin seeds as a garnish. Or learn to cook with tofu.

It’s a highly adaptable gift to plant-based eaters that performs equally wellblended into a dead-ringer faux ricotta as it does in traditional dishes from countries like Thailand, China and Japan.

Take inspiration from India and learn to turn chickpeas into chana masala. Or stash edamame in your freezer for a snack or meal ingredient that takes just minutes to prepare.

Myth #2: Plant-based cooking is too involved and takes forever.

Reality: As with any type of cooking, you can choose dishes that are quick and simple to prepare, or complex and time consuming.

Deboning a duck Julia Child–style isn’t a walk in the park.

And neither is making from-scratch seitan (a protein-rich ingredient made from vital wheat gluten, also called wheat meat). But you pick and choose what dishes you have bandwidth for.

Eating plant-based is much easier than it used to be, too. Lots of restaurants have vegetarian and vegan options that make for perfect takeout or delivery. For instance, look for vegan Chinese food—they’ve got an imitation meat tradition that goes back millennia.

And, many grocery store freezer sections stock vegan mains like faux meatballs or chicken nuggets that taste great and are ultra-quick to prepare.

Top view of assorted vegetarian salads in bowls, all of which can be eaten as part of a plant-based diet.
Photo by Luisa Brimble on Unsplash

How to reduce your carbon footprint by reducing food waste

Food waste is more than just wasted resources (and money). It releases methane as it decomposes in landfills—which is one reason composting is the best way to go with food scraps. If everyone on the planet (companies included) quit wasting food, we could eliminate up to 8 percent of global emissions.

Here’s another mind-blowing stat: food waste in the U.S. generates the same amount of GHG emissions as 37 million cars on the road do.

Solving the food waste issue isn’t just up to individuals, but your contribution will make a difference. And there are really simple ways to combat the problem.

1. Consider buying smaller portions

For starters, buy less. That gallon jug of milk might be cheaper ounce for ounce, but are you really saving money if you always end up pouring the last quarter of it down the drain?

Food waste in the U.S. generates the same amount of GHG emissions as 37 million cars on the road do.

2. Freeze your food before it goes off

Your freezer is also a magical food-preserving machine.

If you make a batch of soup and there are more leftovers than you think you can handle in a few days, freeze a few portions for those nights you don’t feel like cooking. You might be surprised at all the things you can freeze, like shredded cheese, cooked rice, even eggs and wine.

Bananas going bad? Peel them, break into chunks and freeze, and you can turn them into a shockingly delicious plant-based ice cream alternative. That’s a win for the planet and your tastebuds.

Another freezer trick for when you have more fresh herbs than you need: freeze them in an ice cube tray with a little olive oil to pop into hot pans, soups or other dishes.

3. Adopt a meal-planning routine

Meal planning is another helpful tool to avoid waste, and it doesn’t have to mean Sunday-afternoon spreadsheet management. Simply glancing through your stores once a day to see what needs to be used up next will help you stay on top of things.

At-peak fruits and vegetables can be chopped up into extra side dishes with barely any effort, and many other items can be popped in the freezer and used later. (Future you will be thankful when you turn those stale doughnuts or croissants into decadent vegan French toast.)

If there are vegetables you always end up throwing out, maybe it's time to admit you don't like Romaine lettuce.

4. Buy less but shop more often

Also, try shopping more often—assuming it doesn’t mean a lot of driving—and only buying what you need so well-intentioned produce doesn’t die a sad death on your watch.

And if there are specific vegetables you buy optimistically only to almost always end up throwing them out, it’s time to have a serious talk with yourself about solutions. Maybe the pre-chopped veg is worth the extra price to you, or it’s time to just admit that you don’t actually like Romaine lettuce.

A backyard compost pile which is a environmentally-friendly way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

5. Get the most out of your food scraps

For a real homesteading approach, you can start saving your vegetable scraps to make stock for the most delicious soups, stews and grain dishes.

Carrot peelings, onion skins, mushroom stems, the nubby part of a tomato, anything you trimmed off your pepper and even the rinds of your Parmesan cheese (especially those!) can be boiled down into a tasty broth. Cache it all in a lidded container in the freezer. Once it’s full, simmer the mixture down with some tomato paste, onions, garlic and spices.

Composting is a solid workaround for the inevitable food waste we all have. If you don’t have a spot for your own bin, look into community gardens or call your city officials to ask how they can make composting a thing where you live.

Since we’re myth busters, let’s address a few related to food waste.

Myths about food waste and food's carbon footprint

Myth #1: Meal delivery kits cause a lot of waste and should be avoided.

Reality: Meal kits have boomed in recent years, but they come with a lot of packing since each ingredient is pre-portioned for ease.

That in itself sounds like a big no-no, right? But wait: One study found that meal kits actually have a smaller carbon footprint than a regular trip to the grocery store.

Surprising? Kind of.

Because everything is rationed, it prevents you from needing to grab a whole head of iceberg lettuce when your recipe only calls for a quarter, or a jar of that less-common spice that will languish in the cupboard until you one day toss it in a fit of purging. Often, companies have direct-to-farm connections, so that can sometimes whittle away at the foodprint. But to make your meal kits extra planet-friendly, opt for plant-based options every week.

Closeup of assorted root vegetables, all of which can be consumed as part of a climate-friendly diet.
Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

Myth #2: Ugly food is inedible and should be thrown out.

Reality: Embrace the bruises or nicks on produce, ugly food is the same inside.

Many grocery stores sell imperfect produce for cheap. You can even subscribe to food boxes that rescue “ugly” produce, and it’s all edible—delicious, even. If an apple or pear is a little soft, make a crisp or pie, or toss it in a smoothie.

And if a potato has bumps or brown spots, peel or cut them away. You’ve been eating food for a long time, so you know how to suss out what’s gone bad versus what just doesn’t look shiny and perfect. 

Most of all, don’t stress out about getting a perfect 10 on your eating performance. We dine three (at least) times a day, so there are plenty of opportunities to shift behaviors and learn new tricks.

Don’t forget, it’s bit by bit. Big changes often grow from continued small movements, and habits form through repetition—so pick something you feel inspired to try.

Whether it’s Meatless Monday (and perhaps Tuesday too?) or making broth from your vegetable scraps, it all counts.

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

Amy Valm
Written By
Amy Valm

Amy Valm is a writer and editor who probably makes the same jokes as your dad. She has been a pretty big fan of the planet since the '80s.

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