Five of the worst foods for the environment

Research shows carbon footprint of some foods to be especially large

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One third of all food is wasted, and rotting food in landfill is a huge contributor to climate change.

But there are other ways food affects the environment, such as during production.

Research shows that the carbon footprints of some foods are especially large.

Here are five of the worst foods for the environment, along with some tips on how to limit food waste in general.

Industrial meat

Experts say industrial meat production, which is meat produced on a large scale, is the world's single biggest cause of deforestation.

Greenpeace says farmers in Brazil deliberately set forest fires to clear the land for cattle farming. This kills wildlife and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the effects of climate change.

According to a study published in Nature Food in September, the rearing of cows, pigs and other animals is responsible for 57 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Beef alone accounts for a quarter of the emissions.

The research found that a single kilogram of beef creates 70kg of emissions, compared with 2.5kg to produce 1kg of wheat.

“I never buy industrially produced meat,” said Amruta Kshemkalyani, who works as a sustainability consultant in Dubai.

“But in our household we do eat meat, especially seafood, because it’s sustainable and locally produced [in the UAE].”

Palm Oil

Palm oil is another driver of deforestation in some of the world’s most biodiverse forests.

The problem is that it is incredibly lucrative for farmers, “producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop”, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The edible oil is used in about 50 per cent of the packaged products found in supermarkets.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest producers of palm oil, and they are cutting down their forests to create more space for agriculture.

Sadly this means endangered species such as the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino are being pushed to extinction because of encroachment of their habitats.

Palm oil is the leading cause of orangutan extinction, according to the Orangutan Foundation. It says 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans are killed on palm oil farms each year.

“It’s greed, basically,” said Ms Kshemkalyani, who is the founder of the Sustainability Tribe and AK Sustainability Advisory in the UAE.

“They cut down the forest to plant palm farms, which is just palms, nothing else. And the species that were living in the forest have no home.”


Chocolate is another crop that is damaging to the environment.

Experts say the chocolate industry is shrinking rainforests, emitting carbon dioxide, and fuelling climate change.

According to the WWF, it can take an entire year for a cocoa tree to produce enough cocoa beans to make 225 grams of chocolate.

Older trees yield less, so farmers clear tropical forests to plant new cocoa trees rather than reusing the same land.

“These cash crops create a similar problem – vanishing species and reducing the carbon sink viability of the forest,” said Ms Kshemkalyani, describing crops produced for their commercial value rather than for use by the grower.

“There is an ethical aspect as well, where many cocoa farmers are not being paid fairly.”

Mineral water

Recent research conducted by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found the environmental impact of bottled water is up to 3,500 times higher than tap water.

That includes the energy costs of making the plastic bottles, processing the water that goes into them and cleaning, filling, sealing, labelling and transporting them to market.

That equates to about 160 million barrels of oil, according to a 2017 study.

But there is a solution.

“Having a water filter can be a very good idea. Because our tap water in the UAE is of good quality. And if you have a good filter in place you can definitely reduce these plastic bottles,” Ms Kshemkalyani said.

“If it is really necessary for you to have bottled water, then at least you should go for those five-gallon bottles, instead of the individually packed ones, which are very bad.”


More than 145 million tonnes of sugar are produced every year, in 120 countries.

This has a huge impact in terms of the effect on the environment, according to a report by the WWF.

The many negative effects of sugar production include the loss of natural habitats, intensive use of water, heavy use of agro-chemicals, run-off liquid waste and air pollution, it said.

Phosphorus-rich run-off from sugar cane fields is “largely responsible” for the decline of the Everglades in Florida.

Sugar beet irrigation in Andalucia, Spain, has contributed to lowered water levels in rivers, the WWF said. And over the past 60 years the construction of dams, barrages and irrigation systems in Pakistan have “led to a 90 per cent reduction in the amount of freshwater reaching the Indus Delta”.

The group has called on people to reconsider their consumption of the sweet stuff, for their own health as well as the environment.

Tips to limit food waste

  • Be especially careful when buying fresh food, and buy only as much as you plan to use, because it quickly goes out of date
  • Be sure to store your food correctly, paying particular attention to the back of the fridge, where food often gets forgotten
  • Wait until your fridge is empty before shopping – most food is wasted before it is even cooked
  • Eat food produced locally, such as seafood, or fruit and vegetables grown in the UAE
Updated: November 07, 2021, 7:21 AM