What is the best food for sustainability and the environment?

Consumer Ecology has ranked 33 of the best and worst foods for sustainability. Foods are ranked by their average environmental impact. Foods are ranked based on their impacts to 1) Climate Change, 2) Land Use, and 3) Water Use. Each category poses its own challenges for sustainability.  High carbon foods speed up climate change. High land use foods are leading to deforestation and other land use changes. High water use foods are draining rivers and leading to water table collapses that will never come back.

The foods on this page are ranked relative to soybeans, based on their environmental impacts per gram of protein. Consumer Ecology recommends foods based on their total rank:

  • Rank 1-3: Best Choice
  • Rank 3-6: Daily Choice
  • Rank 6-9: Weekly Choice
  • Rank > 9: Monthly Choice

Once you explore this list, you’ll understand why we started Consumer Ecology. We have a lot of saving to do!

This page is still under construction, so check back for updates! Future updates will include a ranking per calorie.

The foods are ranked based on the relative environmental impacts compared to the most efficient food in each category, which is soybeans. If you see a score of “3,” that means a food needs 3 times as much of that resource to produce compared to soybeans. The food rank is the average of all 3 scores. If you want to rank foods relative to each other, then you have to do a little math. If one food is a 10, and another is a 5, then the first food is 10 / 5 = 2 times more resource intensive than the second food.

If you want to know the raw values used for these calculations, you can multiply the value of soybeans by the score of the food of interest:

 

  1. Carbon Footprint of Soybeans: 6.50 g CO2e / g protein 
  2. Square Footprint of Soybeans: 7.72 g protein / sq. ft2
  3. Water Footprint of Soybeans: 5.0 g protein / gallon
 
The water footprint is ranked relative to beef.  All scores that are less than 10% of the water footprint of beef are given a score of 1.

Consumer Ecology has attempted to include all environmental impacts from Cradle to Grave with a life-cycle assessment methodology. The values are reported as bone-free or shell-free per gram of protein. All values reported include cooking, with the exception of tree nuts and hemp hearts. All of the data sources and assumptions for these calculations are available on request. The values and their sources/assumptions will be published on individual environmental impact pages.

The environmental impacts include: Farm production, transportation, retail storage, food waste, and disposal of food. The environmental impacts currently do not include:

Carbon Footprint:

  • Oil for frying
  • Refrigeration at home
  • Packaging Disposal
 

Square Footprint:

  • Packaging
  • Processing Facilities
  • Oil for frying
 

Water Footprint:

  • Processing
  • Packaging
  • Cooking
  • Oil for frying
  • Rinsing/Cleaning

Carbon Footprint:

The carbon footprint data is primarily based on Clune et al. (2017) for almost all foods listed. The study provides a systematic review of hundreds of Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) for common foods. Values are reported as “bone-free” or shell-free, which includes packaging and transportation to the Regional Distribution Center. Consumer Ecology added:

 

Square Footprint:

Square Footprint values are primarily based on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 2020) world statistics. For animal products, the impacts of land use are based primarily on Clark & Tillman (2017). The values were compiled as 5-year averages. The weight of bones and shells was removed from the final product, where appropriate. The impact of food waste, based on the Loss Adjusted Food Availability (USDA ERS, 2020), was then added to the bone-free/shell-free portion of food to obtain the final value. The impact processing losses was also added to the final land use value.

Water Footprint:

Water Footprint values are based on Mekonnen & Hoekstra (2011) and Mekonnen & Hoekstra (2012). The weight of bones and shells was removed from the final product, where appropriate. The impact of food waste, based on the Loss Adjusted Food Availability (USDA ERS, 2020), was then added to the bone-free/shell-free portion of food to obtain the final value. The impact processing losses was also added to the final water use value.

References

Clark, M., & Tillman, D. (2017). Comparative analysis of environmental impacts of agricultural production systems, agricultural input efficiency, and food choice. Environmental Research Letters, 12(6), 064016.
 

Clune, S., Crossin, E., & Verghese, K. (2017). Systematic review of greenhouse gas emissions for different fresh food categories. Journal of Cleaner Production, 140, 766-783.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2020). FAOSTAT Database. Rome, Italy: FAO. See Link to Source

Mekonnen, M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2011). National water footprint accounts: the green, blue and grey water footprint of production and consumption.

Mekonnen, M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012) A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems, 15(3), 401-415.

USDA ERS: US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (2020). Loss-Adjusted Food Availability.