What’s the Environmental Impact of Your Favorite Protein Choices?

To lower your carbon footprint, start in the kitchen.

This Earth Month, you might be paying a little more attention to how your lifestyle impacts our beautiful planet, and when it comes to making environmentally-friendly decisions, what we eat can have a serious impact. That’s right, taking radical climate action can start in your very own kitchen, and the food group with the most impact potential is protein. Here, we’ll get insight into the environmental impact of some of the most common whole food protein options so that you can make more educated decisions while perusing the grocery store.

The Environmental Impact of Food

As we plate up our favorite meal, we may not realize the amount of input, processes, facilities and transportation each ingredient went through to get to us; each step with their own carbon footprint. Globally, the food system is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for nearly one third of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and a staggering 70 percent of all water usage, according to the United Nations.

Within these statistics, at least 14.5 percent of global GHGs are tied to livestock production. This is due to the emissions associated with the inputs and outputs of the facilities and operations of this industry, combined with the emissions produced by the animals themselves. Cows, for example, burp methane. And while that may not seem like a big deal, it’s a major factor in the industry’s overall environmental impact. In fact, as a GHG, methane has up to 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2). The poultry industry is not much better, emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. These animal agricultural systems can also pollute surrounding air and waterways, negatively impacting the neighboring communities and ecosystems.

, however, actually pull CO2 from the atmosphere for the process of photosynthesis that provides them with the energy to grow healthy and strong. So, while there are always caveats (that we’ll get into soon), when looking from a bird’s eye view, animals are generally carbon emitters, while plants have the capacity to be carbon sinks when it comes to protein-rich food production. In fact, Our World in Data, a far-reaching environmental research group, found that plant-based foods have 10 to 50 times less emissions compared to animal-based products. This group offers the most up-to-date information on the environmental impact of our favorite foods, compiling data from 38,700 farming operations across 119 countries, and will be the reference point for the specific GHG data you’ll find here. Now let’s get into more specifics.


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Red Meat

Given what we’ve already learned about livestock production, you may not be surprised to discover that red meat, meaning mostly beef and lamb, has a significant carbon footprint. In fact, conventionally-raised beef emits 99.48 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of product (kg CO2/kg) whereas lamb measures in at 39.72. Compare this to the 0.86 kg CO2/kg of bananas or the 0.19 kg CO2 per kilometer of travel a medium-sized car emits and you can start to see how significant this is. 

However, when it comes to red meat production, we would be remiss to leave out regenerative agriculture or regenerative grazing. For livestock, regenerative agriculture looks like cows feeding on grass for nearly all, if not the entirety, of their life in a way where they’re continually moved between pastures to prevent overgrazing. This kind of system actually has the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, as grazing stimulates grass production while cow manure acts as a natural fertilizer, encouraging more grass growth and more CO2-intensive photosynthesis, capturing the greenhouse gas and storing it in the soil. However, the cows themselves typically emit more methane with these systems, as they take more time to reach harvesting weight compared to those fed corn and soy-rich grain in conventional systems. While it’s hard to nail down the exact emission reductions of these systems, as every farmer engages with it in a slightly different way, we know that regeneratively-raised red meat has a lower environmental impact than the conventional stuff, and these farmers tend to really care about their animals and the environment. More and more, grocery stores are carrying regeneratively-raised meat products, so be sure to keep an eye out for those if you’re a red meat lover.


Whether it be turkey, chicken, or some other type of poultry, this protein measures in at 9.87 kg CO2/kg, a giant step down from conventionally-raised red meat. This makes it a much better environmental choice for those who eat animal-based products. Plus, you can also find regeneratively-raised poultry that will have an even lower impact.


Seeing that there’s so many different types of seafood and methods of harvesting it, this group is a little less straightforward when it comes to environmental impact. According to Our World in Data, farmed shrimp measures in at 26.87 kg CO2/kg, while farmed fish emits 13.63 kg CO2/kg. 

When it comes to wild-caught fish, researchers have found that emissions can be up to six times less than that of conventional-raised beef. However, there are other impacts of wild-caught seafood to consider. Sadly, around 90 percent of global fish stocks are either over-exploited or already exhausted. But, by doing a little research, you can help to ensure that the fish you’re buying are harvested with as much eco-responsibility as possible. The method of catch here is important. Many fisheries looking for large fish, like tuna or salmon, will use large wall netting that will catch far more than just the fish they’re after, negatively impacting the marine ecosystem of that environment. Because of this, you want to look for buzzwords like pole-and-line-caught, pole caught, troll-caught, FAD-free, school caught, and free school while shopping for larger fish. These terms signify that when the fish was caught, the surrounding marine ecosystem was minimally impacted.


Rounding out our animal-based protein choices is the beloved egg, with the lowest footprint of the group. These breakfast favorites only emit 4.67 kg CO2/kg. Again, you can also find regeneratively-raised options here, and those will be even better. More and more people are also undertaking chicken rearing in their backyard, producing their own eggs. If you can get your hands on some of those eggs, you’re really in business.


Segueing into the vegan side of the protein world, here is where you can really make the most difference, whether you’re plant-based or not. Soy products come in many forms, including nourishing whole-food options like tofu and edamame. Tofu emits 3.16 kg CO2/kg, and is a great substitute for meat in countless dishes.


Legumes, including lentils, beans, and peas, are superstars in the world of climate-friendly eating, with peas measuring in at an impressive 0.98 kg CO2/kg. Plus, legumes are nitrogen fixers, meaning that they pull nitrogen from the air and release it into the soil. Nitrogen is the key ingredient in fertilizer, so through utilizing nitrogen-fixing plants like legumes in their operations, farmers can cut down on the use of damaging chemical fertilizers, a bonus environmental perk.

Nuts and Seeds

While some feel that nuts are not the best environmental choice due to some varieties’ high water needs, they only emit 0.43 kg CO2/kg. Plus, some nuts actually have the potential to measure up to carbon negativity, as nut trees are beginning to replace cropland across the country, due to nuts’ increasing popularity. These trees provide the opportunity to sequester serious amounts of carbon and build healthy soil for years to come.

While the topic of food sustainability is complex, making smarter environmental food decisions is more straightforward than you might think. Through research and support of food producers (especially local ones!) that engage in environmentally-sound practices, we can collectively incite the positive change we wish to see in the world, and that is empowering!

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