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

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

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:14 Minutes

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The humble cauliflower has had a boom in popularity over the last few years. Thanks to gluten-free cauliflower pizza bases, and vegan cauliflower steaks, this vegetable is a staple ingredient in many popular recipes. Despite its current trendiness, cauliflower actually has been around for thousands of years, and was even mentioned in a book by Pliny in the 1st Century. However, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of cauliflower. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of cauliflower?

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.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the overall carbon emissions of the life-cycle of cauliflower. 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 Cauliflower

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 cauliflower:

To understand the carbon footprint of cauliflower, 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 Cauliflower

The overall carbon footprint of cauliflower is 0.27 kg (0.60 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is low in comparison to other foods. It has a similar carbon footprint to other low-carbon crops, such as broccoli, kale, lettuce, and celery. The main factors that cause these emissions are agriculture, transport, and packaging, with processing and end-of-life waste having a smaller impact. 

Cauliflower is a sustainable crop to grow and produce. It is a great choice of food if you are trying to reduce your carbon emissions.

The carbon footprint of cauliflower0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of cauliflower

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

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

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

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing 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.

However, because cauliflower does not need an excess of these resources, the carbon footprint is relatively low. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing cauliflower?

  • How do cauliflower grow: Cauliflower is part of the brassica family and grows above ground. It is not the easiest plant to grow, as it can be very sensitive to temperature. Greenhouses are often too hot for cauliflowers, so they are planted outside. This reduces the need for artificial light and heating systems, which produce carbon emissions.
  • What is the growth duration of cauliflower: Cauliflowers can take between 50-100 days to reach maturity, which is a relatively fast growing time, though much slower than salad leaves, which can be ready to harvest in a matter of weeks! Quick harvest times are beneficial to the environment because the land can efficiently be used to yield more produce. This ultimately uses less resources than slower-growing crops, such as asparagus or artichokes.
  • What is the land usage of cauliflower: A good yield of cauliflower would be between 20-40 tons per hectare of land usage. This makes it a land-efficient plant, like broccoli, thus not impacting the carbon footprint greatly.
  • What is the water usage of cauliflower: In order to produce a kilo of cauliflower, 285 liters of water are needed. In comparison, beef requires 15,000 liters to produce just one kilo. The water footprint of cauliflower is relatively low, so it does not have a large impact on the carbon footprint.
  • What is the pesticide and fertilizer usage of cauliflower: Cauliflower ranked 31st on a list of 46 crops tested for pesticide use. This means that it was not found to contain an excess of pesticides, thus producing less carbon emissions from pesticides than vegetables like kale. Pesticides produce carbon emissions through manufacturing, transportation, and application to crops, so the fact that cauliflower has relatively low levels of pesticides is better for their carbon footprint. 

In short, the water, land, and resources required to grow cauliflower create carbon emissions. However, because cauliflower does not require a lot of resources, this stage of the process does not create the majority of the overall carbon footprint of cauliflower.

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

Cauliflowers are harvested by hand and usually sold unprocessed. The carbon footprint of cauliflower is largely impacted by the use of plastic. This is used because the white color can ‘rust’ easily, making them unappealing to consumers, and cauliflower florets also easily crumble. 

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

In short, cauliflower is often an unprocessed plant, harvested by hand, which means this process causes relatively few carbon emissions. However, a reliance on plastic film packaging produces carbon emissions. Moving away from using plastic, would reduce the carbon footprint further. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of 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 broccoli 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.

The transporting process requires refrigerated containers, which ship cauliflowers from the West Coast and the Southwest to the entirety of the US. Locally grown cauliflowers are always optimal to reduce your carbon footprint.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting cauliflower?

In short, the transportation process contributes a significant portion of the overall carbon footprint of cauliflower. Purchasing locally grown cauliflower reduces this impact, as there are less food miles. 

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

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

Cauliflower has a shelf life of about a week, which is relatively short and could lead to food waste. It is a compostable product, which can create sustainable fertilizer. However, it sadly often ends up rotting in landfill. The packaging used is possible to recycle, but also can end up in landfill. Some scientists are exploring ways to use a natural wax found within cauliflower leaves as an antitranspirant for other crops. This could help reduce food waste by increasing the shelf life of other plants.

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

In short, cauliflower is not wasted that often, especially in comparison to salad vegetables, like lettuce, which are wasted 8.5x more often. The plastic packaging used on cauliflower contributes negatively to the carbon footprint. 

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

Cauliflower has a relatively low carbon footprint compared with other foods. In comparison to other popular vegetables, it ranks alongside broccoli, kale, and celery. So, if you are looking for a low-carbon snack that is also super healthy, cauliflower is a good choice.

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

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

In comparison to other vegetables, the carbon footprint of cauliflower is average. For example, cucumbers produce nearly three times the carbon emissions of cauliflower. Salad vegetables need more resources to grow, making their carbon footprint far higher than root vegetables. This is why cauliflower has a carbon footprint that is around three 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
Chili Peppers0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of chili 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
Spinach0.30 kg (0.67 lbs) of CO2e per pound of spinach
Cauliflower0.27 kg (0.6 lb) CO2e per pound of cauliflower
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
Corn0.27 kg (0.6 lb) of CO2e per pound of corn
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
Garlic0.18 kg (0.4 lb) of CO2e per pound of garlic
Green Onions0.16 kg (0.32 lb) of CO2e per pound of green onions
Potatoes0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes
Mushrooms0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of mushrooms
Onions 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of onions
Sweet potatoes0.10 kg (0.22 lb) of CO2e per pound of sweet potatoes
Cabbage0.07 kg (0.19 lb) of CO2e per pound of cabbage
Eggplants0.07 kg (0.16 lb) of CO2e per pound of eggplants

So, cauliflower has a relatively average carbon footprint in comparison with other vegetables. But how does it compare to other types of food?

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

As a brassica, cauliflower 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 cauliflower is extremely low in calories, a far greater amount of produce is needed to equal 1,000 kilocalories.

  • To eat 1,000 kilocalories, you would need to consume 40 servings, or around 141 ounces.
  • In comparison to beef you would only need 4.6 servings to eat 1,000 kilocalories, or 16 ounces.
  • Comparatively, cauliflower has a high carbon footprint per kilocalorie, but is enormously less calorific than animal-based food.
  • More calorific plant-based foods, such as pulses and nuts, have a minuscule carbon footprint in comparison to animal-based proteins. A single portion of beef amounts to around 8.8 portions of cauliflower, in terms of calories.
  • This means that per portion, you will be consuming fewer calories, and so the carbon footprint will not be as large as this graph suggests.

Even though the carbon emissions for cauliflower is 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 low CO2e, such as cauliflower. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

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

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Cauliflower

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Cauliflower is a cool season crop, and is in peak season in spring and fall. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice.
  2. Choose organic: Organic cauliflower 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 waste: Cauliflower has a relatively short shelf-life, meaning it may end up going bad in the refrigerator. Avoid this by storing your cauliflower correctly, and consuming it quickly. Instead of throwing out the leaves, you can use these to make delicious, healthy snacks.

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

Final Thoughts

Cauliflower has a relatively low carbon footprint when compared with other vegetables and an even lower carbon footprint when compared with other foods. However, you can try to reduce your carbon footprint even further by eating organic, reducing food and plastic waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. When you do enjoy cauliflower, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make this healthy vegetable a more sustainable option!

Stay impactful,

Illustration of a signature for Grace Howarth

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