What Is the Carbon Footprint of Asparagus? A Life-Cycle Analysis

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Asparagus? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:14 Minutes

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Asparagus has been cultivated for 2,500 years, and can be found in the world’s oldest cookery book – Apicius’ 9th Century ‘On the Subject of Cooking.’ In the right conditions, this vegetable can grow 2 inches a day! Filled with antioxidants and vitamins, asparagus is a fiber-rich healthy choice. However, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of asparagus. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of asparagus?

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. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the overall carbon emissions of the life-cycle of asparagus. From growing and packaging, to transportation and end-of-life practices, you will learn how this vegetable affects the planet and discover some ways to reduce and offset the footprint. 

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of Asparagus

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 asparagus:

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

Here’s the Overall Carbon Footprint of Asparagus

The overall carbon footprint of asparagus is 0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is slightly above-average in comparison to other vegetables. The carbon footprint of asparagus is similar to that of salad mix. It produces about double the carbon emissions of carrots, but less than a half of the carbon emissions of cucumbers

The carbon footprint of asparagus0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce

So, let’s have a look at each stage of the LCA of asparagus!

The life-cycle stages of asparagusEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of asparagusThe 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 asparagusThe 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 asparagusThe 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 asparagusThe carbon footprint of the end of life of asparagus is largely impacted by the amount of food and packaging wasted. 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. 

These four stages can be broken down in more detail to understand the factors which impact the carbon footprint of asparagus.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing 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. 

Despite the long growth duration, asparagus is fairly drought resistant and does not use a great deal of pesticides. This makes the growing process of this plant less carbon intensive than crops which require lots of water and are treated with multiple pesticides, such as cucumber.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing asparagus?

In short, the long growing duration and low yield of asparagus increases the carbon footprint of this vegetable. However, the carbon footprint of asparagus is not massively impacted by pesticides or water usage because asparagus farmers use little of both. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Harvesting, Processing, and Packaging 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.

Asparagus is a very labor-intensive crop, which requires a lot of processing. This paired with the use of plastic packaging increases the carbon footprint of asparagus. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging asparagus?

In short, the processing and packaging stages of asparagus contribute negatively to the overall carbon footprint of this plant. Aim to buy loose bundles of the vegetable to lessen your carbon impact.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of 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. 

Transportation by air produces 500 grams of CO2 per metric ton of freight per km of transportation, which is 20-30 times higher than transportation by ship. This has a large impact on the overall carbon footprint of asparagus. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting asparagus?

In short, the air miles needed to transport asparagus from South America increases the carbon footprint of asparagus substantially.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of the End-of-Life of Asparagus

The carbon footprint of the end of life of asparagus is largely impacted by the amount of food and packaging wasted. 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. 

This stage of the process largely depends on whether the asparagus is sold loose or in packaging, and whether waste ends up in landfill, or is composted.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of the end-of-life of asparagus?

In short, loose asparagus reduces plastic waste, and has a lower carbon footprint. Similarly, composted food waste produces fewer carbon emissions. Aim to compost your waste, and purchase loose produce to reduce your carbon footprint. 

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Asparagus Compare to Other Types of Food

Asparagus has a relatively average carbon footprint in comparison to other foods. In relation to other popular vegetables, it ranks alongside salad mix. 

Let’s see how asparagus ranks in comparison to other types of vegetables. 

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Asparagus Compare to Other Types of Vegetables

In comparison to other vegetables, the carbon footprint of asparagus is above-average. Cucumbers produce over double the carbon emissions of asparagus. Vegetables grown above-ground tend to need more resources to grow, making their carbon footprint far higher than root vegetables. This is why asparagus has a carbon footprint that is around four times higher than onions.

VegetablesCarbon Footprint
Cucumbers1.00 kg (2.2 lbs) of CO2e per pound of cucumbers
Tomatoes0.82 kg (1.8 lbs) CO2e per pound of tomatoes
Bell Peppers0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of bell peppers
Asparagus0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of asparagus
Salad Mix0.41 kg (0.9 lbs) of CO2e per pound of salad mix
Broccoli0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of broccoli
Celery0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of celery
Kale0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of kale
Lettuce 0.26 kg (0.57 lb) of CO2e per pound of lettuce
Carrots0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of carrots
Potatoes0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes
Onions 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of onions

So, asparagus has an above-average carbon footprint in comparison with other vegetables. But how does it compare to other types of food?

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Asparagus Compare to Other Types of Food in General

Like brassicas, asparagus is one of the more sustainable options in comparison to other types of food. It produces around twelve times less greenhouse gas emissions than beef. 

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), foods are often compared in terms of emissions per 1,000 kilocalories (as opposed to their weight in lbs or kg).

Illustration of greenhouse gas emissions per 1000 kilocalories
Our World in Data: Greenhouse Gas Emissions per 1,000 kilocalories

However, since asparagus is significantly lower in calories than beef, a far greater amount of produce is needed to equal 1,000 kilocalories.

Even though the carbon emissions for asparagus are low in comparison to other types of food, try to be mindful of the ways you can lessen your environmental impact when you purchase it.

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 a relatively low CO2e, such as asparagus. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

There are a few easy techniques to buy more eco-friendly asparagus, and you can also find ways to offset the carbon footprint after your purchase.

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Asparagus

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Asparagus is a spring vegetable, which is in peak season in April and May. Buying from local farms, if you can, reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice.
  2. Choose organic: Organic asparagus produces 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. Avoid plastic waste: Plastic waste can be difficult to recycle, and uses a lot of resources to create and recycle. Choosing to buy loose asparagus is an easy way to reduce the waste you create, and lower your personal carbon footprint. 

Taking these actions are a great way to lessen your own carbon footprint, but there are also ways to offset the impact of consuming asparagus 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 asparagus. 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 asparagus – 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 asparagus, 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 2023 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated to, e.g., eating asparagus.

Final Thoughts

The carbon footprint of asparagus is quite low in comparison to all food types, however it does produce more carbon emissions than root vegetables and leafy vegetables. This above-average carbon footprint, in comparison to other vegetables, is largely due to the processing and harvesting stage of asparagus, as well as the imported air freighted produce from South American countries, such as Mexico and Peru. Try to eat locally and seasonally to reduce your personal carbon footprint, if you can!

Stay impactful,

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