Foods With the Worst Environmental Impact

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When it comes to the impact certain foods have on the environment, it’s not surprising that meat and dairy products top the list. But you might be surprised that foods we’ve been told are good for us may not necessarily be good for the environment.

To find the foods with the worst environmental impact, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the research article, “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers,” published in Science magazine in 2018. Foods are ranked by greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of food product.

Impacts from food production include water use and water pollution, depletion of natural resources, greenhouse gas emissions, and environmental pollutants.

Rice, for example, provides 20% of the world’s calories intake, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Brown rice also has certain beneficial nutrients, according to Cleveland Clinic. But rice production generates methane emissions and uses a lot of water during its production. Microbes in flooded rice paddies produce methane, and some of that is emitted into the atmosphere. Per nutritional unit, 1,000 kcal, rice has a much lower environmental impact. (These are the 20 countries responsible for nearly all global emissions.)

Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, and tofu is a source of iron and calcium. However, the production of both of these products often causes deforestation. According to World Wildlife Magazine, the practice of cocoa farmers clearing tropical forests to plant new cocoa trees rather than reusing the same land in West Africa is responsible for 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation. Dark chocolate ranks second highest on the list for greenhouse gas emissions per 1 kg of food. Tofu ranks 20th.

Olive oil is an essential part of the Mediterranean diet and is good for heart health. However, its production can cause negative environmental impacts such as depletion of resources, degradation of land, and waste generation. 

The production of nutrient-rich eggs hurts the environment via the emission of greenhouse gasses and the contamination of soil and water. 

Aquaculture, including crustacean and fish farms, have helped address food insecurity in areas where the population is growing rapidly. The negative environmental impacts include nutrient buildup when there is concentration of fish in one area. This can lead to excessive levels of fish waste that deplete the water of oxygen, creating algae blooms. (Another pollutant of water is plastic. These are plastic waste generation values across countries.)

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