10 Vegetables With the Highest Carbon Footprint: The Full Life-Cycle Analysis

10 Vegetables With the Highest Carbon Footprint: The Full Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Grace Howarth

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While it is well known that plant-based ingredients have lower carbon footprints than their animal-based counterparts, finding the vegetables that produce the most carbon emissions overall may not be as simple. So we had to ask: What are the 10 vegetables with the highest carbon footprints?

The 10 vegetables with the highest carbon footprints are cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, asparagus, salad mix, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, and celery. They produce over 0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound, with cucumbers releasing 1.00 kg (2.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce.

In this article, we’ll walk you through these 10 vegetable options, laying out why they have comparatively high carbon footprints compared to other vegetables. From growing and packaging, to transportation and end-of-life practices, you will learn how these crops affect the planet and discover some ways to reduce and offset the footprint. 

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of All Vegetables

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, and is generally expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by you as an individual or an organization providing you with goods and services – including vegetables:

To understand the carbon footprint of vegetables, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials.

These Are the 10 Vegetables With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Type of vegetableCarbon footprint
CucumbersOverall carbon footprint: 1.00 kg (2.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of cucumbers
Main driver of its carbon footprint: Cucumber is a high maintenance plant, which requires a lot of water.
TomatoesOverall carbon footprint: 0.82 kg (1.8 lbs) CO2e per pound of tomatoes
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The large amount of land needed to grow these plants.
Bell PeppersOverall carbon footprint: 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of bell peppers
Main driver of its carbon footprint: High land and pesticide usage.
Chili PeppersOverall carbon footprint: 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of chili peppers
Main driver of its carbon footprint: High land and pesticide usage. 
AsparagusOverall carbon footprint: 0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of asparagus
Main driver of its carbon footprint: A long growing period, and importation by air freight from South America.
Salad MixOverall carbon footprint: 0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of salad mix
Main driver of its carbon footprint: High processing needs and use of plastic packaging.
SpinachOverall carbon footprint: 0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of spinach
Main driver of its carbon footprint: Use of plastic packaging and importation from Mexico and China.
CauliflowerOverall carbon footprint: 0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of cauliflower
Main driver of its carbon footprint: Use of plastic packaging.
BroccoliOverall carbon footprint: 0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of broccoli
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The resources used in the growing process. 
CeleryOverall carbon footprint: 0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of celery
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The use of polyethylene packaging and plastic waste.
1

Cucumbers: The Vegetable with the Highest Overall Carbon Footprint

Cucumbers produce 1.00 kg (2.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is higher than all other vegetables. Nearly 95% of the carbon emissions are produced during the growth stage, due to water usage, and the high-maintenance required. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of cucumbers and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

Cucumbers require an inch of water daily, which contributes largely to the overall carbon footprint. The frequent importation of produce from Mexico, and the use of plastic packaging, are also factors as to why cucumbers are the vegetable with the highest carbon footprint.

2

Tomatoes: A Crop that Requires a Lot of Land

Tomatoes have a relatively high carbon footprint of 0.82 kg (1.8 lbs) CO2e per pound of produce. The main factor for these emissions is agriculture, which accounts for 94.53% of the overall carbon footprint of tomatoes, because of the large amounts of land needed to grow this crop.

Here are the life-cycle stages of tomatoes and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of tomatoes: The carbon footprint of growing tomatoes is 0.77 kg (1.7lb) CO2e per pound of produce. This makes up a significant 94.53% of the overall carbon footprint. They require a lot of land, which means that they are not the most carbon-efficient crop to grow.
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of tomatoes: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging tomatoes is 0.0002 kg (0.004 lb) CO₂e per pound of produce. This is a low 0.02% of the overall carbon footprint of tomatoes due to the efficient harvesting process, and the fact that processed tomatoes make use of ‘imperfect’ plants, which would otherwise be wasted. 
  • Transporting of tomatoes: The carbon footprint of transporting tomatoes is 0.04 kg (0.1 lb) CO2e per pound of produce, which is 5.43% of the overall carbon footprint. This is affected by the distance of travel, and whether they have been grown domestically or internationally. Since only 40% of tomatoes consumed are grown domestically, this contributes substantially to the overall carbon footprint. 
  • End-of-life of tomatoes: A massive 31% of fresh tomatoes are wasted annually, which is the equivalent of each person in the country throwing out 21 tomatoes a year. A huge amount of carbon emissions are created by food ending up in landfill. For every pound of food waste, 1.13 kg (2.5 lbs) of CO2e is emitted.

Tomatoes are one of the most land-intensive plant-based foods, which has a negative impact on the overall carbon footprint of this crop. The advancement of vertical farming could see a reduction of the carbon emissions of tomatoes. 

3

Bell Peppers: Frequent Importation from Mexico Increases the Carbon Footprint

Bell peppers have a relatively high carbon footprint of 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, making it one of the highest carbon-emitting vegetables. Nearly 80% of the CO2e is produced in the growing stage, due to land usage, a long growing period, and the high maintenance required.

Here are the life-cycle stages of bell peppers and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

The land usage, long growing period, and pesticide use contributes to a high carbon footprint. The importation of peppers from Mexico also produces carbon emissions, and increases the food miles of this crop. 

4

Chili Peppers: A Land and Pesticide Intensive Crop

Chili peppers have a relatively high carbon footprint of 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, like bell peppers. This makes it one of the highest carbon-emitting vegetables. Since chili peppers and bell peppers have the same growing process, they share the same issues, including land usage, long growing periods, and high maintenance.

Here are the life-cycle stages of chili peppers and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

This is a high-carbon vegetable in general, due to the resource intensive growing period. However, chili peppers have a lower carbon footprint if bought whole, unprocessed, and unpackaged. 

5

Asparagus: The Importation of this Vegetable From South America Increases the Carbon Footprint

Asparagus has a carbon footprint of 0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is slightly above-average compared to other vegetables, though still lower than non-plant-based foods. A lot of asparagus is imported by air freight from Mexico and Peru, increasing the carbon footprint. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of asparagus and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of asparagus: The carbon footprint of growing asparagus is 0.09 kg (0.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 17.29% of the overall carbon footprint of asparagus. This is quite a carbon-intensive stage because asparagus grows very slowly, and is not ready to be harvested for a year.
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of asparagus: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging asparagus is 0.32 kg (0.7 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which amounts to 70.71% of the overall carbon footprint of this plant. This is such a high percentage due to the plastic packaging often used, and the many processing stages of asparagus.
  • Transporting of asparagus: The carbon footprint of transporting asparagus is 0.04 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which contributes to 12% of the overall carbon footprint. Asparagus has a short shelf-life and is often transported by air freight from countries such as Mexico, Chile, and Peru, which produces a lot of carbon emissions. 
  • End-of-life of asparagus: Since asparagus is usually more of a luxury vegetable, at a higher price point than staples like lettuce and broccoli, asparagus waste is not as prevalent. The discarding of plastic packaging has a larger impact on the carbon footprint. 

Asparagus is a slow-growing crop, meaning that more resources have to be used over the growing process. The air freight importation from South America makes this vegetable less sustainable than locally grown produce. This increases the carbon emissions, and means that asparagus has a relatively high carbon footprint in comparison to other vegetables.

6

Salad Mix: The Processing and Packaging Has a Negative Impact on the Carbon Footprint of this Food

Salad mix has a carbon footprint of 0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is about average for vegetables. Over 70% of the carbon footprint is due to the harvesting, processing, and packaging required to produce salad mix. It has a higher carbon footprint than lettuce sold whole.

Here are the life-cycle stages of salad mix and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of salad mix: The carbon footprint of growing salad mix is 0.09 kg (0.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 17.27% of the overall carbon footprint. This is largely because of the land, water, and pesticide use in the agricultural stage of growing salad mix.
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of salad mix: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging salad mix is 0.32 kg (0.7 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 70.73% of the overall carbon footprint. This large percentage is due to the use of plastic packaging, and the extensive processing and harvesting stages. 
  • Transporting of salad mix: The carbon footprint of transporting salad mix is 0.05 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 12% of the overall carbon footprint of salad mix. Salad leaves are grown in the US, mainly in California and Arizona. The carbon footprint is impacted by transport methods, and food miles, so buying locally reduces the carbon footprint of this stage.
  • End-of-life of salad mix: Salad is one of the most wasted foods, with around 40% of salad mix bags being thrown away. Salad mix makes up 12.6% of all wasted salad, with 37,400 tons being wasted a year. The plastic packaging is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

The carbon footprint of salad mix is higher than that of salad leaves sold separately. This is due to the additional processing required, as well as the plastic packaging, which is almost always used when bags of salad mix are sold. 

7

Spinach: The Plastic Packaging and Importation of this Vegetable Increases the Carbon Footprint

Spinach has a carbon footprint of 0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is about average for vegetables. Over 40% of this carbon footprint is due to the transportation of spinach. Furthermore, it is often sold in plastic packaging, which increases the carbon footprint further.

Here are the life-cycle stages of spinach and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

Spinach is a land and water efficient vegetable, but the plastic packaging that it is sold in has a negative impact on the overall carbon footprint. 

8

Cauliflower: Over Half of the Carbon Footprint of Cauliflower is Produced by Plastic Packaging

Cauliflower has a low carbon footprint of 0.27 kg (0.60 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. The main factors for these emissions are packaging and agricultural practices. The transporting footprint can be kept low by purchasing local produce.

Here are the life-cycle stages of cauliflower and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of cauliflower: The carbon footprint of growing cauliflower is 0.04 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which amounts to 23.80% of the overall carbon footprint of cauliflower. This is largely due to the water and land usage required to grow this crop.
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of cauliflower: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging cauliflower is <0.23 kg (<0.5 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which equals 58.62% of the overall carbon footprint of this plant. 55.23% of the overall carbon footprint is due to the carbon produced by plastic packaging. 
  • Transporting of cauliflower: The carbon footprint of transporting cauliflower is 0.04 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which amounts to 17.58% of the overall carbon footprint of cauliflower. This is low, since the crop grows in many small farms across America, and the majority of cauliflower consumed in the US is grown in California. As the product does not have to be shipped from overseas, the overall transportation emissions are fairly minimal.
  • End-of-life of cauliflower: Cauliflower makes up 0.2% of all avoidable food waste, and scores 86th on a list of the 100 most wasted ingredients. Since the majority of cauliflowers are packaged in plastic, this has a larger impact on the carbon footprint of this food.

The plastic usage and waste has a significant impact on the carbon emissions of cauliflower. Since this vegetable is easily damaged, a more sustainable packaging method should be found to reduce the carbon footprint.

9

Broccoli: Food and Plastic Waste Have a Big Impact on the Carbon Footprint of Broccoli

Broccoli has a low carbon footprint of 0.27 kg (0.60 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. These carbon emissions are relatively low in comparison to other vegetables. The main factors for these emissions are agriculture and packaging. The transporting footprint can be kept low when buying locally.

Here are the life-cycle stages of broccoli and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

The main drivers of broccoli’s carbon emissions are the resources needed in the growing period, as well as the use of plastic packaging. Food waste also has a significant impact on the overall carbon footprint. 

10

Celery: Polyethylene Packaging Increases the Carbon Footprint of this Vegetable

Celery has a low carbon footprint of 0.27 kg (0.60 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes it one of the lower carbon-emitting vegetables. The largest contributor to this footprint is the use of polyethylene bags for packaging. 

Here are the life-cycle stages of celery and each stage’s sustainability assessment:

  • Growing of celery: The carbon footprint of growing celery makes up 23.95% of the overall carbon footprint of celery. The main contributing factor is water usage as this vegetable requires a lot of water during the growing process. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of celery: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging celery makes up 55.11% of the crop’s overall carbon footprint.This high percentage can be attributed to the polyethylene bags used for packaging. 
  • Transporting of celery: The carbon footprint of transporting celery makes up 17.55% of the vegetable’s overall carbon footprint. This is largely down to the chilled transport conditions, and the food miles involved in getting celery across the US. 
  • End-of-life of celery: Celery makes up 6.5% of all salad waste. This is because it has a longer shelf life than other salad vegetables, like lettuce and tomatoes. So, the carbon footprint is low at this stage. However, it can be reduced further by only purchasing loose produce, as opposed to plastic-wrapped items, and composting the leftover waste.

If you purchase celery, try to buy it loose to reduce the carbon footprint of this vegetable. It has a relatively low carbon footprint compared to other vegetables, but if the plastic waste was eliminated, it would be far more sustainable. 

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

All of the food you eat will have some form of carbon footprint. When you purchase vegetables with relatively high CO2e, you could find ways to reduce and offset your personal carbon footprint

There are a few easy techniques to buy more eco-friendly vegetables, and you can also try offsetting the carbon footprint after your purchase. 

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Vegetables

When shopping for vegetables, consider these ways to lessen your impact on the environment. 

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Buying seasonally reduces the need for imported crops, or energy-intensive greenhouses. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced, reduces food miles, and makes it a much more sustainable choice. If you are near a local, small-scale farm, which harvests by hand, your purchase will be even better for the environment.
  2. Choose organic: Organic vegetables produce a much lower carbon footprint than non-organic vegetables, due to the lack of pesticide production, distribution, and the overall higher health of soil for crops, insects, and animals.
  3. Buy plastic-free: Avoid pre-processed and packaged vegetables where possible, and instead opt for whole, loose produce. This will decrease the overall carbon footprint of your purchase massively.

Taking these actions are a great way to lessen your own carbon footprint, but there are also ways to offset the impact of consuming vegetables as well.

How Can You Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere – for example for the carbon emissions that are associated with vegetables. They are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees

Oxford Dictionary

In terms of vegetables – and indeed all food types – there will always be a carbon footprint, because of the resources it takes to get your food from farms to the place where you’ll eventually eat them. And while there are ways to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for vegetables, carbon offsets would be a way to reduce your CO2e emissions all the way down to net zero (or even to become climate positive).

However, when you purchase carbon offsets, it’s important that they actually make a difference in offsetting (aka reducing) total carbon emissions. To achieve that, the following are key criteria:

  • Carbon offset projects have to be effective (different projects have different effectiveness rates)
  • Carbon offset projects have to be additional
  • Carbon offset projects have to be permanent
  • The claims from carbon offset projects have to be verifiable

To find the best carbon offsets for you personally, check out our full guide on the best carbon offsets for individuals, where you’ll also learn more about how these carbon offset projects work, what their respective offsetting costs are, and what your best way would be to offset your own carbon emissions.

Related: Check out our full guide on “What Are the Best Carbon Offsets for Individuals: Complete 2024 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated to, e.g., eating vegetables.

Final Thoughts

Vegetables, in comparison to other types of food, have low carbon footprints. This is because vegetables, on the whole, require less resources to produce, than non-plant-based foods. If you want to be aware of which vegetables have the highest impact on the planet, the 10 laid out in this article will allow you to make conscious choices in the kitchen. Try to balance these ingredients with lower-carbon vegetables. To reduce your impact even more, try eating organic, reducing food and plastic waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. When you do enjoy these vegetables, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make these healthy snacks a more sustainable option!

Stay impactful,

Illustration of a signature for Grace Howarth

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