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

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

By
Grace Howarth

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Roasted, fried, boiled, or mashed, potatoes are one of the more versatile vegetables, which is why they are the second most consumed food in the United States. Americans, on average, eat a potato every day. Potatoes were even the first vegetable to be grown in space! However, much less is shared about the environmental impact, and especially the carbon emissions of potatoes. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of potatoes?

Potatoes have a carbon footprint of 0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is very low for crops. 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. 

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

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 potatoes:

To understand the carbon footprint of potatoes, 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 Potatoes

The overall carbon footprint of potatoes is 0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes, which is very low. Potatoes produce less than half of the carbon emissions of lettuce, and almost a quarter less carbon emissions than cucumber.

The carbon footprint of potatoes0.12 kg (0.27 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes

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

The life-cycle stages of potatoesEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of potatoesThe 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 potatoesThe 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 potatoesThe 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 potatoesThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of potatoes is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. 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. 

These four stages can be broken down in more detail to understand why the carbon footprint of potatoes is low in comparison to other vegetables.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing 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. 

Potatoes are grown underground, and do not require a lot of resources. Fewer resources needed in the agricultural process lead to a far smaller carbon footprint. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing potatoes?

In short, the growing process of any vegetable usually is the most carbon-intensive stage, and this is true with potatoes. However, due to the low water, land, and pesticide use, potatoes have a low carbon footprint. 

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

Potatoes are harvested by carbon-intensive machines, and are processed into many different dishes, such as fries, chips, and feed for livestock. The resources needed for these processes contribute to the carbon emissions of potatoes. 

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

In short, the processing and harvesting stages are relatively carbon-intensive. Buy packaging-free potatoes to lower the carbon footprint of this crop. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting 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. 

Potatoes can grow anywhere in the United States, and so commercial farming is spread wide across the country. Processed potatoes are often imported from across the world, so aim to buy local, fresh potatoes, as they have a much smaller carbon footprint. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting potatoes?

In short, locally grown potatoes produce far fewer carbon emissions, so aim to find local farms, or even grow your own, as potatoes can be grown in any U.S. state!

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

The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of potatoes is largely impacted by the amount of food wasted. 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 have a very long shelf-life, and can be stored for months, in the right conditions. However, nearly half of all fresh potatoes are discarded. Be conscious of your consumption to reduce this waste. 

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

In short, there is a great deal of potato waste, which increases the carbon footprint of this product. They are easy to forget in the back of your cupboard, so make sure to be aware of reducing waste, and not buying too many potatoes, that may go off before you have a chance to consume them. Aim to buy loose potatoes to reduce plastic waste, or potatoes in recyclable materials like paper bags or cardboard boxes. 

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

Potatoes have a very low carbon footprint compared to other vegetables. Additionally, vegetables tend to produce far fewer carbon emissions than other types of food, making potatoes a highly sustainable snack choice!

Let’s see how potatoes compare with other vegetables.

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

In comparison to other vegetables, the carbon footprint of potatoes is low. For example, cucumbers produce more than 8 times the carbon emissions of potatoes. Salad vegetables need more resources to grow, making their carbon footprint far 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, potatoes are one of the more sustainable vegetables, but how do they compare to other types of food?

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

Root vegetables have a very low carbon footprint in comparison to other types of food. Potatoes produce around 88 times fewer 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 potatoes are low in calories, a far greater amount of produce is needed to equal 1,000 kilocalories.

Even though the carbon emissions for potatoes 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 them.

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 potatoes. However, there are ways to offset and reduce your personal carbon footprint. 

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

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Potatoes

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Potatoes are in prime season from June to October. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced 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 potatoes 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 potatoes, 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 potatoes 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 potatoes. 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 potatoes – 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 potatoes, 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 potatoes.

Final Thoughts

Potatoes have a low carbon footprint when compared with other vegetables and a very low 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 potatoes, 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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