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Basket of Vegetables

There are a lot of things that contribute to our so-called “climate footprint,” the total amount of global warming greenhouse gas emissions that our lives create. Transportation is number one. Our homes clock in at number two. And would you believe the number three thing that’s eating up the atmosphere is food?

It’s true. The average household’s total carbon footprint is 48 tons of carbon or its equivalents per year, and food is responsible for somewhere around 15% of that total.

Most if not all of the climate pollution that our food creates happens before we buy it. The extent of these impacts depend on how much energy, land, feed or fertilizer, processing, and transportation is required to put a particular food on our tables. Yet sometimes the food itself is the problem. Cattle, for example, produce 34% of all U.S. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Here’s a look at some of the foods with the largest carbon footprint:

  • Lamb has the highest emissions of any food, generating 86.4 pounds of greenhouse gases for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) eaten.
  • Beef is number two with 59.6 pounds of gases produced per 2.2 pounds consumed.
  • Cheese is number three on the list with 29.7 pounds of gases for each kilogram eaten.
  • Pork and farmed salmon are next. Each creates about 12 pounds per kilogram.
  • Turkey clocks in at 10.9 pounds per kilogram
  • Then comes chicken at 6.9 pounds per kilogram, canned tuna at 6.1 pounds, eggs at 4.8 pounds, and potatoes at 2.9 pounds.

When we eat less of these foods, our carbon footprints would shrink accordingly. But that’s not always easy to do. Yes, sometimes we can simply leave a high-impact food off the menu. But what about recipes that demand them? What kind of substitutions can we make then?

For meat, the answer is pretty simple: use a vegetable-based alternative. Many meat dishes can be made with ingredients like tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein, and wheat-based seitan and still taste delicious. Try textured vegetable protein instead of ground beef and seitan as a great chicken substitute that can be baked, simmered, or fried into almost anything. And don’t forget beans, which can become burgers you’ll love. There are entire cookbooks that tell us how to do it.

We can also lower the carbon footprint of meat-based meals we do serve by choosing grass-fed, pasture-raised, and organic varieties, all of which are have lower impacts. And instead of farmed salmon, try wild-caught canned. No, it’s not the same. But it’s carbon footprint isn’t either.

For cheese, I’m not going to kid you—there’s no real substitute. But you can swap them out for homemade non-dairy versions in many meals. Go Dairy Free has a great list of recipes. If you want real cheese, choose a strong-flavored variety like sharp cheddar or bleu that will let you use less. Watch out for store-bought alternatives like soy cheese, which often contain dairy components and require energy-intensive processing.

When baking, try egg substitutes. This guide explains how use things like bananas and starches in recipes instead. You’ll still have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, but you can cut carbon corners in dishes where the eggs aren’t apparent.

In general, it’s no secret that the lower we eat on the food chain, the fewer impacts we’ll create. The surprise is that with a great recipe, we don’t have to leave the table unsatisfied when we do!


All emissions figures from

Geoff the Inkslinger and his Dog

The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!