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

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

By
Grace Howarth

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Chili peppers were one of the first domesticated plants, farmed 6,000 years ago in Peru and Mexico. Since then, this spicy crop has found its way into many popular dishes, from Japanese ramens and Mexican burritos, to condiments like hot sauce. Yet, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of chili peppers. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of chili peppers?

Chili 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.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the overall carbon emissions of the life-cycle of chili peppers. From growing and packaging, to transporting 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 Chili Peppers

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 chili peppers:

To understand the carbon footprint of chili peppers, 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 Chili Peppers

The overall carbon footprint of chili peppers is 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is relatively high for crops. However, they have a lower carbon footprint than other salad vegetables such as tomato and cucumber.

Chili peppers are a popular way to spice up any dish, so it is important to know the carbon footprint associated with this vegetable. Then, you can make sustainable choices when it comes to your food.

The carbon footprint of chili peppers0.73 kg (1.6 lbs) of CO2e per pound of chili peppers

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

The life-cycle stages of chili peppersEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of chili peppersThe carbon footprint of growing chili peppers is 0.59 kg (1.3 lbs) of Co2e per pound of produce. This makes up 79.61% of the overall carbon footprint of this plant. The significant land usage, long growing period, and high pesticide use make up a large part of this figure. 
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of chili peppersThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging chili peppers is 0.1 kg (0.23 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce. This makes up 13.68% of the overall carbon footprint. This is largely due to the use of plastic packaging, and the processing of this vegetable.
Transporting of chili peppersThe carbon footprint of transporting chili peppers is 0.05 kg (0.11 lbs) of CO2e per pound of chili peppers. This amounts to 6.71% of the overall carbon footprint. This is impacted by the US importing over a million tons of peppers from Mexico annually.
End-of-life of chili peppersThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of chili peppers is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Peppers (including chili, but also more prevalently bell peppers) produce the 56th largest amount of avoidable food waste by weight, with 15,000 tons being wasted a year. Their plastic packaging is also bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

These four stages can be broken down in more detail to understand why the carbon footprint of chili peppers is relatively high in comparison to other vegetables.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Chili Peppers

The carbon footprint of growing chili peppers is 0.59 kg (1.3 lbs) of Co2e per pound of produce. This makes up 79.61% of the overall carbon footprint of this plant. The significant land usage, long growing period, and high pesticide use make up a large part of this figure. 

Chili peppers are relatively easy to grow, but they are very sensitive to temperature and require a lot of land. This makes them quite labor intensive, attributing to the relatively high carbon footprint. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing chili peppers?

In short, growing chili peppers accounts for the majority of the carbon footprint of this plant. Land, water, and pesticide use, are key factors towards this. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Harvesting, Processing, and Packaging Chili Peppers

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging chili peppers is 0.1 kg (0.23 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce. This makes up 13.68% of the overall carbon footprint. This is largely due to the use of plastic packaging, and the processing of this vegetable.

Chili peppers are often harvested by hand, and require minimal processing and packaging. However, commercial markets will often process and package crops to increase shelf-life, which increases the carbon footprint. 

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

In short, plastic-free, fresh chili peppers have lower carbon footprints. So, try to purchase the vegetable without processing or packaging to reduce the carbon footprint of your purchase.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting of Chili Peppers

The carbon footprint of transporting chili peppers is 0.05 kg (0.11 lbs) of CO2e per pound of chili peppers. This amounts to 6.71% of the overall carbon footprint. This is impacted by the US importing over a million tons of peppers from Mexico annually.

Chili peppers are transported from overseas to satisfy consumer demands for year-round produce. This customer demand for non-seasonal crops has a negative impact on the carbon footprint of chili peppers. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting chili peppers?

In short, a reliance on imported chili peppers, shipped from a long distance, significantly increases the carbon footprint of this plant. Shopping locally and seasonally is a key way to reduce the impact of purchasing chili peppers.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of the End-of-Life of Chili Peppers

The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of chili peppers is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Peppers (including chili, but also more prevalently bell peppers) produce the 56th largest amount of avoidable food waste by weight, with 15,000 tons being wasted a year. Their plastic packaging is also bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

Chili peppers are compostable, but often end up in landfill. The packaging is often recyclable too, but also can be discarded in landfill if not disposed of properly. Some developments are being made to create perforated compostable packaging, which would increase shelf-life, reduce food waste, and eliminate plastic waste. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of the end-of-life of chili peppers?

In short, a move towards compostable packaging would significantly lower the carbon footprint of the end-of-life of chili peppers, as would a preference for locally grown, imperfect produce, and a greater awareness of how severely food waste impacts the environment. 

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Chili Peppers Compare to Other Types of Food

Chili peppers have a relatively high carbon footprint compared to other vegetables. However, vegetables tend to produce far fewer carbon emissions than other types of food. 

Let’s see how chili peppers compare to other vegetables.

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Chili Peppers Compare to Other Types of Vegetables

In comparison to other vegetables, chili peppers rank quite highly. Salad vegetables tend to need more resources to grow, making their carbon footprint higher than root vegetables.

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, chili peppers are not the most sustainable choice of vegetables, but how do they compare to other types of food?

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

Like tomatoes and cucumbers, chili peppers rank highly in comparison to other food types. 

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 chili peppers are extremely low in calories, a far greater amount of produce is needed to equal 1,000 kilocalories. Also small amounts of chili peppers are most commonly used as a garnish, rather than eating a full ‘portion.’ 

  • To eat 1,000 kilocalories, you would need to consume 25 100g servings, around 200 medium size chili peppers, or 55 ounces. That would be a very spicy way to eat 1,000 kilocalories!
  • In comparison to beef, which appears close to tomatoes and cucumbers on the list, you would only need 4.6 servings to eat 1,000 kilocalories, or 16 ounces.
  • Comparatively, salad vegetables have an extremely high carbon footprint per kilocalorie, but are enormously less calorific than animal-based food.
  • More calorific plant-based foods, such as pulses and nuts, have a miniscule carbon footprint in comparison to animal-based proteins. A single portion of beef amounts to around five portions of chili pepper, 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.

Since the carbon emissions for chili peppers are relatively high, try to be mindful of the ways you can lessen your environmental impact when you purchase them.

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

All of the food you eat will have some form of carbon footprint, especially when you buy foods with high CO2e, like chili peppers. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

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

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Chili Peppers

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Chili peppers are in season from late summer to winter. Buying from local farms reduces the need for carbon emissions produced by importing the produce from a long distance, and makes it a much more sustainable choice.
  2. Opt for plastic free produce: Aim to only buy loose chili peppers, and be mindful to consume them quickly to reduce food waste. If loose chili peppers are not available, recycle any plastic waste produced.
  3. Choose organic: Organic chili peppers 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.

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

Final Thoughts

Chili peppers have a relatively high carbon footprint in comparison to other vegetables. Try to reduce your carbon footprint by eating organic, buying plastic-free, reducing food waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. Once plastic packaging has been replaced with compostable wrappings, chili peppers will have a lower carbon footprint, but they will still remain a resource-heavy plant. When you do enjoy chili peppers, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make this healthy vegetable a more sustainable option! 

Stay impactful,

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