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

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

By
Grace Howarth

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Corn is the number one commodity grown by U.S. farmers. In fact, America is the largest producer and consumer of corn worldwide, dubbed as a corn global superpower. This sweet-tasting vegetable is also highly versatile, used in a variety of foods from popcorn and tortillas to high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in various items like soda and baked goods. Corn is even utilized in some of the most unexpected places, like envelopes, batteries, and toothpaste! Yet, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of corn. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of corn?

Corn has a carbon footprint of 0.27 kg (0.60 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is below average for vegetables. It is a land and water-intensive crop, which increases the carbon footprint. Over half of the carbon emissions are created during the harvesting and processing stages. 

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

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 corn:

To understand the carbon footprint of corn, 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 Corn

The overall carbon footprint of corn is 0.27 kg (0.60 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is fairly average for crops. Corn has the same carbon footprint as broccoli, cauliflower, kale and celery. It has a lower carbon footprint than other salad vegetables such as salad mix, tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper

With corn consumption so widespread, 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 corn0.27 kg (0.60 lbs) of CO2e per pound of corn

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

The life-cycle stages of cornEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of cornThe carbon footprint of growing corn is 0.05 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 23.80% of the overall carbon footprint of corn. As the most produced crop in the US, this intensive farming produces a great deal of carbon emissions. The land and water usage needed to grow corn increases the carbon footprint.
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of cornThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging corn is <0.18 kg (<0.4 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 58.62% of the overall carbon footprint of corn. This large fraction is due to the prevalence of processing and use of carbon-intensive combine harvesters when producing corn.
Transporting of cornThe carbon footprint of transporting corn is 0.05 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 17.58% of the overall carbon footprint of corn. The US is the number one worldwide producer of corn. However, most of this produce is not grown for human consumption. Corn for consumption in the US is commonly imported from Mexico which increases the food miles and the carbon footprint of this vegetable. 
End-of-life of cornThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of corn is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Corn makes up 2.9% of all avoidable vegetable waste, with 50,800 tons wasted every year. Moreover, the plastic packaging is 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 the factors which impact the carbon footprint of corn.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Corn

The carbon footprint of growing corn is 0.05 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 23.80% of the overall carbon footprint of corn. As the most produced crop in the US, this intensive farming produces a great deal of carbon emissions. The land and water usage needed to grow corn increases the carbon footprint.

While growing corn does indeed produce carbon emissions, especially on such a large scale, it is also an effective carbon sink. A study by South Dakota State University found that “since 1985, the cropland acres in South Dakota alone have sequestered as much carbon as emitted by 17.8 billion gallons of gasoline.” 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing corn?

In short, the water and land needed to grow corn increases the carbon emissions of this crop. With such an extensive use of corn in the US, the intensive growing of this crop has a large impact on the environment. 

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

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging corn is <0.18 kg (<0.4 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 58.62% of the overall carbon footprint of corn. This large fraction is due to the prevalence of processing and use of carbon-intensive combine harvesters when producing corn.

Only 1% of corn grown in the US is sweetcorn. The other 99% is primarily used for ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, and animal feed. The industrial processing and harvesting of corn has a large impact on the carbon footprint of this crop. 

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

In short, unpackaged and unprocessed corn has a far smaller carbon footprint than corn which has been processed and packaged in plastic. Purchasing fresh corn can help reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting of Corn

The carbon footprint of transporting corn is 0.05 kg (0.1 lbs) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 17.58% of the overall carbon footprint of corn. The US is the number one worldwide producer of corn. However, most of this produce is not grown for human consumption. Corn for consumption in the US is commonly imported from Mexico which increases the food miles and the carbon footprint of this vegetable. 

Try and opt for locally grown corn where possible, to reduce the carbon footprint of this vegetable. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting corn?

In short, buying locally grown corn reduces the carbon footprint. A movement towards corn-based packaging, as opposed to plastic, will reduce carbon emissions, and make corn, as well as food packaging in general, more sustainable. 

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

The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of corn is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. Corn makes up 2.9% of all avoidable vegetable waste, with 50,800 tons wasted every year. Moreover, the plastic packaging is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste.

Fresh corn can degrade very quickly, not usually lasting more than 5-7 days in the refrigerator. This short shelf life can lead to more food waste. Corn is compostable, but often ends up in landfill. In addition, the packaging is usually recyclable, but can also end up in landfill if not disposed of properly.

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

In short, corn could be wasted due to a short shelf-life. This crop is often packaged in plastic, increasing the carbon footprint. To reduce waste, be conscious of not letting any food go bad, and recycling any plastic waste. 

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

Corn has quite a low carbon footprint compared to other vegetables. As well as this, vegetables tend to produce far fewer carbon emissions than other types of food. 

Let’s see how corn compares with other vegetables.

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

In comparison to other vegetables, the carbon footprint of corn is just below average. For example, cucumbers produce over three times the carbon emissions of corn. However, in comparison to very low-carbon vegetables like cabbage, corn produces nearly four times as many carbon emissions. This is because 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, corn has a low average carbon footprint in comparison with other vegetables. But how does it compare to other types of food?

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

Corn is one of the most sustainable options in comparison to other types of food. It produces nearly 96 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

Additionally, since corn is low in calories, a far greater amount of produce is needed to equal 1,000 kilocalories.

Even though the carbon emissions for corn is very 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 relatively average CO2e, such as corn. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

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

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Corn

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Corn is usually in season from late summer to early fall, depending on the state where it is grown. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice.
  2. Choose organic: Organic corn 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: Corn often can end up going bad in the refrigerator. Avoid this by storing your corn correctly, and consuming it quickly. It is recommended to eat corn on the day of purchase. It has a shelf life of about a week, but reduces in sweetness the longer it is left. It is possible to freeze corn to extend shelf life. 

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

Final Thoughts

Corn has a very low carbon footprint in comparison to other food, and a slightly below average carbon footprint when compared with other vegetables. Try to reduce your carbon footprint further by eating organic, reducing food waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. As hydroponic farming becomes a more viable source for the production of corn, the growing process will have a lower carbon footprint, and become more localized. When you do enjoy corn, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make this healthy snack a more sustainable option! 

Stay impactful,

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