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

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

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:17 Minutes

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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 fewest carbon emissions overall may not be as simple. So we had to ask: What are the 10 vegetables with the lowest carbon footprints?

The 10 vegetables with the lowest carbon footprints are eggplants, cabbage, sweet potatoes, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, green onions, garlic, carrots, and lettuce. They create less than 0.26 kg (0.57 lb) CO2e per pound of produce. Root vegetables tend to be less resource-intensive than other crops.

In this article, we’ll walk you through these 10 vegetable options, laying out why they have comparatively low carbon footprints compared to other foods. 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 Lowest Carbon Footprint

Type of vegetableCarbon footprint
EggplantsOverall carbon footprint: 0.10 kg (0.22 lb) of CO2e per pound of sweet potatoes
Main driver of its carbon footprint: Imported sweet potatoes from China, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic produce more carbon emissions.
CabbageOverall carbon footprint: 0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of cabbage
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The growing process produces carbon emissions, and this crop is often packaged in plastic, which increases the carbon footprint.
Sweet PotatoOverall carbon footprint: 0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of garlic
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The land intensity of this crop, as well as the water usage and long growing period, increases the carbon footprint of garlic.
OnionsOverall carbon footprint: 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of onions
Main driver of its carbon footprint: Processed onions increase the carbon footprint of this otherwise low-carbon crop.
MushroomsOverall carbon footprint: 0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of mushrooms
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The short shelf-life of this crop increases the likelihood of food waste. This is a waste of resources and can contribute to CO2e emissions.
PotatoesOverall carbon footprint: 0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes
Main driver of its carbon footprint: As one of the most wasted foods, the discarding of potatoes increases the carbon footprint enormously. 
Green OnionsOverall carbon footprint: 0.16 kg (0.32 lb) of CO2e per pound of green onions
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The US is the world’s largest importer of green onions grown abroad, which negatively impacts the carbon footprint.
GarlicOverall carbon footprint: 0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of garlic
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The land-intensity of this crop, as well as the water usage and long growing period, increases the carbon footprint of garlic.
CarrotsOverall carbon footprint: 0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of carrots
Main driver of its carbon footprint: This vegetable is often packaged in plastic and processed, which contributes to the carbon emissions. 
LettuceOverall carbon footprint: 0.26 kg (0.57 lb) of CO2e per pound of lettuce
Main driver of its carbon footprint: The growing period of lettuce requires carbon-intensive resources like pesticides, land, and water. As well as this, the plastic packaging of lettuce produces carbon emissions.
1

Eggplant: The Vegetable With the Lowest Overall Carbon Footprint

Eggplant has a low carbon footprint of 0.07 kg (0.16 lbs) CO2e per pound of produce. This vegetable is land and water efficient, and is locally grown across many states. Furthermore, eggplant is rarely sold in plastic or processed. Therefore, the few resources that eggplant needs makes it a low-carbon vegetable.

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

Overall, eggplant uses few land resources, and is rarely processed, or packaged, which are carbon-intensive processes. It is a crop that can be found across many states, reducing food miles. The lack of plastic waste, alongside the small amount of food waste, are the reasons why the carbon footprint of eggplant is low. 

2

Cabbage: Easy to Grow With Comparatively Few Resources Needed

Cabbage has a very low carbon footprint of 0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. The main factors that contribute to these emissions are cabbage’s agricultural practices and packaging; the transporting footprint can be kept low by purchasing local produce.

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

  • Growing of cabbage: The carbon footprint of growing cabbage is 0.07 kg (0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up a large 77.57% of the overall carbon footprint of cabbage. Cabbage is land-efficient, uses little water in comparison to other foods, and is treated with few pesticides. These factors all contribute to the low carbon footprint. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of cabbage: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging cabbage is <0.07 kg (<0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is 11% of the overall carbon footprint. Processed cabbages sold in plastic packaging have a higher carbon footprint than loose whole cabbages, due to the extra resources used.
  • Transporting of cabbage: The carbon footprint of transporting cabbage is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which amounts to 11.43% of the overall carbon footprint. Cabbage grows in many states, making it easy to buy locally-produced cabbage, which has a lower carbon footprint than imported crops. 
  • End-of-life of cabbage: Cabbage makes up 1.5% of all avoidable food waste, with 56,000 tons wasted a year. They are the 18th most wasted ingredient. Cabbage is often sold loose, but when packaged in plastic, it has a negative impact on the carbon footprint. 

Cabbage is a simple crop to grow, which does not require a great deal of water or land. It can be purchased locally, which makes it a low-carbon option. When purchasing cabbage, buy loose, unprocessed cabbage, to make it as low-impact as possible!

3

Sweet Potato:  An Eco Root Vegetable With a Relatively Low Carbon Footprint

Sweet potatoes have a carbon footprint of 0.10 kg (0.22 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. Nearly 90% of the carbon footprint is produced in the growing stage of this crop. Sweet potatoes can be grown locally, with few resources, leading to a low carbon footprint.

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

  • Growing of sweet potato: The carbon footprint of growing sweet potatoes is 0.09 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This amounts to nearly 90% of the overall carbon footprint. The growing period of any crop tends to be resource-intensive, due to the land, water, and pesticide usage. Sweet potatoes are land-efficient, and are treated with very few pesticides so they have a relatively low growth carbon footprint. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of sweet potato: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging sweet potatoes is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This amounts to 11.48% of the overall carbon footprint of this crop. The use of plastic packaging, and processed sweet potato products like sweet potato fries, increase the overall carbon footprint.
  • Transporting of sweet potato: The carbon footprint of transporting sweet potatoes needs to be researched more to find an exact figure for carbon emissions. Since the US is the world’s largest importer of this crop, the food miles of internationally grown crops will contribute significantly to the overall carbon footprint of sweet potatoes.
  • End-of-life of sweet potato: Unfortunately, globally around 45% of tubers are wasted a year. This increases the carbon footprint of this vegetable. Any packaging used is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste. This can be offset by proper storing methods, which can increase shelf-life without the need for plastic packaging. 

Sweet potatoes are relatively easy to grow and do not require a lot of carbon-intensive resources. However the popularity of sweet potatoes imported from China, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic increases the carbon footprint.

4

Onions: A Vegetable That Neither Needs Processing Nor Packaging

Onions have a carbon footprint of 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is a low carbon footprint largely because onions can be grown locally, have a long shelf life, and often require few resources, such as pesticides, to grow. 

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

  • Growing of onions: The carbon footprint of growing onions is 0.05 kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 42.65% of the overall carbon footprint of this vegetable. This number is low mainly because of their efficient growth times and lack of pesticide use. Negative factors that contribute to this footprint include the use of tractors to plant onion seeds. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of onions: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging onions is <0.09 kg (<0.2 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 28.5% of the overall carbon footprint of this plant. Unprocessed and unpackaged onions have a lower carbon footprint, as less resources are required.
  • Transporting of onions: The carbon footprint of transporting onions is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce which amounts to 28.84% of the overall carbon footprint. This is a relatively low carbon footprint because onions can be grown in many states, making it easier to buy local produce. Produce grown in other countries will have a much larger transportation footprint.
  • End-of-life of onions: Around 43,000 tonnes of avoidable onion waste is discarded every year. However, since onions are often sold loose, there is less plastic waste with this vegetable.

Overall, onions have a low carbon footprint. However, around 15-18% of onions are processed into pastes, powders, oils, ready-chopped, pickled, or frozen dishes, such as onion rings. This processing requires a lot of electricity and resources, increasing the carbon footprint.

5

Mushrooms: A Fast-Growing Fungi That Needs Few Resources

Mushrooms have a low carbon footprint of 0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. They require few resources to grow, are largely grown in the U.S, and can be sold fresh and unpackaged. All of these factors contribute to a very low carbon footprint overall.

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

  • Growing of mushrooms: The carbon footprint of growing mushrooms is 0.07 kg (0.15 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up a large 55.57% of the overall carbon footprint of mushrooms. However, this is a very low amount in comparison to other vegetables, due to the short growth period of mushrooms, as well as their land and water efficiency, and the lack of pesticides required to grow them.
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of mushrooms: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging mushrooms is >0.09. kg (>0.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce. This makes up a small 0.26% of the overall carbon footprint of this crop. Mushrooms are often sold loose but they can also be packaged using plastic trays. Opt for unpackaged mushrooms to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible. 
  • Transporting of mushrooms: The carbon footprint of transporting mushrooms is 0.05 kg (0.12 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 44.17% of the overall carbon footprint. This number is low because a short shelf-life reduces the possibility for importing mushrooms from abroad, keeping the carbon footprint relatively small. 
  • End-of-life of mushrooms: Mushrooms make up 2.3% of all avoidable vegetable waste, with 15,000 tons wasted a year. They are the 60th most wasted ingredient. Mushrooms are often sold loose, but when packaged in plastic, their packaging also has a negative impact on the carbon footprint. 

Mushrooms are very land and water-efficient, and grow remarkably quickly. However, because the short shelf-life of this vegetable can lead to wastage, the food and plastic waste increases the carbon footprint. 

6

Potatoes: A Low Carbon Option, When Waste Is Avoided

Potatoes have a carbon footprint of 0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. Over 60% of the carbon footprint is due to the resources used while growing potatoes. Choosing organic, fresh, unpackaged potatoes is the most sustainable way to purchase this produce. 

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

  • Growing of potatoes: The carbon footprint of growing potatoes is 0.08 kg (0.17 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This amounts to over 60% of the overall carbon footprint. The growing period of any crop tends to be resource-intensive, due to the land, water, and pesticide usage. Potatoes use very little water and very few pesticides so they have a relatively low growth carbon footprint. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of potatoes: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging potatoes is 0-0.09 kg (0-0.2 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This amounts to 26.85% of the overall carbon footprint. Since only 30% of potatoes are eaten fresh in the US, these stages have a significant impact on the overall carbon footprint. 
  • Transporting of potatoes: The carbon footprint of transporting potatoes is 0-0.04 kg (0-0.1 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This amounts to 11.15% of the overall carbon footprint. Potatoes are grown widely across the states, which means tha local-grown produce is easier to find. Local crops are better for the environment, and lower the carbon footprint of this plant. 
  • End-of-life of potatoes: Unfortunately, potatoes are one of the most wasted foods, with 3 billion pounds of potatoes thrown away every year. This increases the carbon footprint. Any packaging used is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste. This can be offset by proper storing methods, which can increase shelf-life without the need of plastic packaging. 

Potatoes are very sustainable to grow, but are often wasted, which increases the carbon footprint. Avoid throwing out potatoes, or letting them go bad, to increase the sustainability of this crop. 

7

Green Onions: Importation Significantly Increases Their Carbon Footprint

Green onions have a carbon footprint of 0.16 kg (0.32 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is low because green onions can be grown locally, are often sold loose and unprocessed, and require few resources, such as pesticides, to grow. 

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

  • Growing of green onions: The carbon footprint of growing green onions is 0.08 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 59.16% of the overall carbon footprint of this vegetable. This number is low mainly because of their efficient growth times and lack of pesticide use. Negative factors that contribute to this footprint include the use of tractors to plant onion seeds. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of green onions: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging green onions is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 29.87% of the overall carbon footprint of this plant. Unprocessed and unpackaged green onions have a lower carbon footprint, as less resources are required.
  • Transporting of green onions: The carbon footprint of transporting onions is <0.05 kg (<0.1 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce which amounts to 10.97% of the overall carbon footprint. This is a relatively low carbon footprint because green onions can be grown in many states, making it easier to buy local produce. However, the US is the largest importer of green onions in the world. Produce grown in other countries and imported will have a much larger transportation footprint.
  • End-of-life of green onions: Around 43,000 tonnes of avoidable onion waste is discarded every year. However, since green onions are often sold loose, there is little plastic waste associated with this vegetable.

The carbon footprint of green onions can be very low, but importing produce, using plastic packaging and processing this crop increases the amount of carbon emissions.

8

Garlic: Land and Water Usage Are the Main Contributors to its Carbon Footprint

Garlic has a carbon footprint of 0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This low impact is because garlic is usually sold without plastic, has a long shelf life, and often requires few resources, such as pesticides, to grow. 

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

Garlic overall has a low carbon footprint, but the water and land usage are the main factors which increase the carbon emissions. Purchase locally grown, loose, unprocessed garlic to reduce the carbon footprint. 

9

Carrots: Plastic and Food Waste Increases Their Carbon Footprint

Carrots have a carbon footprint of 0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. Over 60% of the carbon footprint is due to the resources used in processing and packaging. 

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

  • Growing of carrots: The carbon footprint of growing carrots is 0.05 kg (0.12 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This amounts to around 30% of the overall carbon footprint. This low figure is because carrots do not require a lot of water, are land-efficient, and are relatively fast-growing. In addition, carrots are found to use very few pesticides in comparison to other vegetables, such as salad mixes
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of carrots: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging carrots is 0.1 kg (0.23 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. The majority of this is due to plastic packaging. To lower the carbon footprint of carrots, aim to buy loose produce. 
  • Transporting of carrots: The carbon footprint of transporting carrots is 0.04 kg (0.1 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up around 9.35% of the carbon footprint. Most carrots are domestically produced, meaning that the carbon footprint is not increased dramatically by cross-continental shipping. 
  • End-of-life of carrots: The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of carrots is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Carrots are one of the most discarded vegetables due to aesthetic reasons. Unfortunately, approximately 25-50% of carrots are thrown away for this reason. The plastic packaging is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

The packaging and processing of carrots has a significant impact on the overall carbon footprint of this crop. Whole, loose carrots are a more sustainable choice.

10

Lettuce: A Relatively Land and Water Intensive Crop

Lettuce has a carbon footprint of 0.26 kg (0.57 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. Over 82% of this carbon footprint is caused by the resources used in the growing process. Choosing organic, whole, unpackaged produce is the most sustainable way to purchase lettuce.

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

  • Growing of lettuce: The carbon footprint of growing lettuce is 0.21 kg (0.47 lb) of CO2e per pound of lettuce. This makes up a significant 82.70% of the overall carbon footprint of this vegetable. This is because of the pesticide, water, and land usage. 
  • Harvesting, processing, and packaging of lettuce: The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging lettuce is <0.009 kg (<0.02 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This makes up a tiny 0.12% of the overall carbon footprint of this crop. This is because lettuce is hand-harvested and usually unprocessed.
  • Transporting of lettuce: The carbon footprint of transporting lettuce is 0.009 kg (0.02 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 3.5% of the overall carbon footprint. Most lettuce is grown in the US. But, with imports increasing, the carbon emissions could become more harmful to the environment.
  • End-of-life of lettuce: Lettuce is one of the most wasted foods, making up 21.9% of all wasted salad, with 65,100 tons being wasted a year. Lettuce is often wrapped in plastic packaging, which is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life of lettuce, leading to less food waste.

The leading factor to the overall carbon footprint of lettuce is the growing period, including the pesticides, water, and land needed to grow this crop. As well as this, the plastic packaging increases the carbon emissions. 

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

All of the food you eat will have some form of carbon footprint, even when you buy foods with relatively low CO2e, such as these vegetables. However, there are still ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

There are a few easy techniques to buy more eco-friendly low-carbon vegetables, and you can also find ways to offset 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’re looking for the most sustainable vegetables, the 10 laid out in this article will make your meals as low-carbon as possible! Enjoy these ingredients, knowing that they have a very small impact on the planet. 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,

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