The carbon impact of your meals


Many people have adopted a philosophy of buying local food because they are concerned about the carbon footprint of transporting food long distances. People are rebelling against tomatoes from South America and garlic from China, because they can reduce greenhouse emissions by buying locally. Some people even start their own gardens for this reason.

Surprisingly, though, it is the production phase of food production, not transportation, that has the heaviest carbon footprint. And it turns out that the place we can make the biggest difference is in our meat choices.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University analyzed the carbon footprint associated with producing, transporting, and distributing food in the U.S. From the production of fertilizer to processing and refrigeration, all activities that produced carbon emissions were tallied.

While agricultural products like grains, fruits, and vegetables had carbon emissions associated with transport, their total carbon footprint paled in comparison to meats. The study found that red meat had the greatest climate impact, followed by dairy products. Chicken, fish, and eggs had lower impacts than red meat but higher than produce and cereals.

If a household wants to reduce its food-related carbon footprint, the study concluded, just reducing red meat consumption by about 25% and shifting it to white meat or fish would have the same impact as 100% localization of food purchases.

There are lots of good reasons to buy locally grown produce, including supporting local farmers and enjoying fresh flavors. But if you want to reduce the carbon footprint of the food you eat, the best way to start is burger by burger.


Produced in collaboration with WAMC Northeast Public Radio, this podcast originally aired on November 14, 2012. To access a full archive of Earth Wise podcasts, visit:

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