Environmental impact of foods
Facts & Figures
We believe that making the agri-food sector and society more sustainable and healthier begins with accurate and clear information. Over the years we have collected a lot of information and carried out many studies into the environmental impact of agricultural produce and foods. We are also frequently asked to share what we have learned – which is why we are happy to publish a number of key figures.
The table below shows the CO2 emissions (kg CO2 eq/kg) of several foods consumed in the Netherlands. We will regularly update these figures in line with our latest findings.
Calculating environmental impact
The whole life cycle at a glance: Cradle to End-of-Life
The figures in the orange column give the environmental impact of the product (in kilograms of CO2 emitted per kilogram of product) over its whole life cycle – cradle to end-of-life. This includes the environmental impacts caused throughout the whole life cycle of the product, from the use of raw materials and transportation to the preparation of the food by the consumer and the treatment of packaging waste.
Part of the life cycle: Cradle to Retail
The figures in the green column show the environmental impact of the product (in kilograms of CO2 emitted per kilogram of product) up to and including the retail stage – cradle to retail. This includes all the impacts to the point when the product is in the shop. It therefore excludes the consumer and waste processing stages.
Including and excluding land use change
The first and fourth columns show impacts including ‘land use change’. This includes the impacts of things like deforestation to cultivate crops used for animal feed. The second and fifth columns show the climate impacts caused specifically by land use change. The contributions made by land use change to the environmental impacts are shown separately because these calculations involve greater methodological uncertainties.
Differences: Preparation of the product by consumers
The results for the cradle-to-end-of-life and cradle-to-retail assessments in the table are clearly very different. This difference is due mainly to the consumer stage when the products are prepared and cooked (e.g. boiled or fried). Preparation and cooking can change the mass of the product, resulting in a reduction or increase in weight. For example, when meat is prepared and cooked its weight is reduced because it shrinks and loses moisture as it is cooked. When rice is cooked the opposite occurs; it increases in weight as it absorbs water. Other factors also play a role in the consumer stage, such as food losses and the addition of oil or other fats during cooking. This last aspect also has an influence on the land use change impact.
Sustainability: Comparisons per kilogram of product often not meaningful
The environmental impact of different food products are often compared on a per kilogram basis. However, different foods have different nutritional values, which means that comparisons of environmental impacts per kilogram of product are usually not a meaningful basis for determining the sustainability of different foods.
Grasping the full picture of sustainable diets
However, it is possible to analyze both the environmental impact and the nutritional value of food products, which does provide a meaningful basis for comparison. To make such comparisons possible we developed Optimeal, an optimization program for calculating the sustainability and health of foods and dietary patterns. This software takes a linear and quadratic programming approach. For environmental lobby organization Natuur & Milieu we used Optimeal to develop the Menu for Tomorrow. We analyzed a whole range of foods to determine what would be a healthy and sustainable diet for the Netherlands. The resulting Menu for Tomorrow describes how the Dutch should be eating in the year 2030. In addition, for WWF UK we drew up a number of sustainable and healthy dietary patterns (Livewell Plates).
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
These studies were based on the life cycle assessment (LCA) method. LCAs describe the resources used and processes involved throughout the whole life cycle of a product, which makes it possible to identify where the main environmental impacts occur in the production and supply chain (the hotspots). Moreover, LCAs allow us to investigate multiple impact categories. Besides carbon emissions there are many other environmental impact categories, including land use, water use, acidification and eutrophication.
Food Consumption Impact Datasets
The production and consumption of food products impact the environment relating to climate change, water use, and land use. Consumer awareness of the sustainability of food consumption patterns is increasing. However, it is still challenging to grasp the environmental impact of food products purchased in the supermarket. At Blonk, we have collected numerous insights and datasets of the impact of these consumer food products. Products included are, for example, apples, carrots, wholemeal bread, mustard, prepared mixed salad, ready-to-eat soups, sunflower oil, yogurt, and meat burgers. Our Food consumption impact datasets open up a range of opportunities for companies and organizations striving for a more sustainable world.
Get in touch
Meike van de Wouw
If you want to get a better understanding of the sustainability of your products or more detailed environmental impact data, contact Meike.