Environment on Your Lunch Plate

Mirjam Burget is a public outreach specialist at the University of Tartu’s Natural History Museum.

Did you know that food is one of the three main culprits in the pollution of the environment, apart from housing and traffic? We are what we eat, and what we eat influences both our health and the well-being of the whole planet.

What does your usual lunch consist of? Have you ever thought about the environmental impacts of your everyday food choice? When determining environmental impacts of various foods, we need to take into consideration how the food is produced and processed, including cultivation, fertilising, harvesting and preparation methods.

It is not possible to control the entire process of food production, but it is possible to control your everyday choices. Here are some hints for taking care both of your health and the planet.


Pizza has a relatively high environmental impact: The carbon footprint is 2.68 kg CO2e/kg and phosphorous contamination of 2.75 kg PO4e/kg. Image credit: Teppo Johansson.

Use the plate model for guidance

The plate model is a guide to determine what you should be eating, but it also helps to eat in an environmentally friendly way. To best take the environment into account, fill your plate with vegetables that are in season, and add only moderate amounts of dairy products, meat or fish.

Seasonal foods

Select ingredients for your meals based on the current season. In the summer, select farm-grown vegetables, fruit and berries. In the wintertime, choose foods that are stored without freezing, such as carrots, beets, cabbage, rutabagas and turnips.


Almost all cereals are an environmentally friendly choice and their carbon footprint is under 1 kg CO2e/kg. Various research has placed the carbon footprint of rice at anywhere from 2.5 to 6 kg CO2e/kg. If rice is not your domestic crop, it is possible to replace it with domestic alternatives such as barley. Remember to choose whole grains when possible.

Dairy products

As for dairy products, it is environmentally friendly to choose milk, buttermilk, yoghurt and similar products in your daily diet. The carbon footprint of cheese is more than 10 kg CO2e/kg, so leave cheese for those special occasions.


The highest environmental impact of all food items belongs to the production of meat. For instance, the production of beef has the largest carbon dioxide emissions, reaching as high as 20 kg CO2e/kg in Finland. Production of pork has carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 6 kg CO2e/kg, while poultry production causes 4 kg CO2e/kg and egg production 2.7 kg CO2e/kg. The environmentally friendly choice is game. The protein from meat can be replaced by eating mushrooms and various protein-rich legumes, such as peas and beans.


The size of the carbon footprint is connected to the origin of the fish. Catching fish in the wild removes nutrients from the water and reduces eutrophication. The environmental effects of wild fish are much smaller than those of farmed fish, because they do not consume fish feed. However, large and old specimens of wild fish should be consumed in moderation since they may contain higher levels of dioxins or mercury.

Fats, butter, rapeseed oil, and olive oil

The carbon footprint of margarine and rapeseed is about 1 kg CO2e/kg, which means they are an environmentally friendly choice. The carbon footprint of butter (about 4.8 kg CO2e/kg) is a bit more than that of olive oil. Fish and rapeseed oil are the best sources of healthy unsaturated fats.

Fish and veggies

An environmentally friendly choice: The carbon footprint of the meal is 0.81 kg CO2e/kg and phosphorous contamination 0.02 kg PO4e/kg. Image credit: Teppo Johansson.

Checklist for friends of the environment

  • Don’t waste food.
  • Prefer locally produced and seasonal food.
  • Limit consumption of cheese.
  • Eat less meat, especially beef.
  • Prefer domestic fish caught from the wild.
  • Use rapeseed oil.
  • Plan trips to the grocery store carefully when travelling by car.

This article is based on the brochure “Ympäristö lautasella” of Martat, produced during the project “FOODWEB – Baltic environment, food and health: from habits to awareness”. The project was carried out by the Central Baltic INTERREG IV A Programme 2007-2013.

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