• Pesticides have significant negative environmental impacts on birds, bees, biodiversity and ecosystem functions.
  • Life cycle analysis was used to determine the contribution that animal-based and plant-based food products have on freshwater ecotoxicity.
  • Plant-based products were found to be better for the environment because they have a much lower ecotoxicity impact potential than animal-based products.

Take Home Message

Plant-based products are better for the environment and when it comes to farmed animals cows don’t always have the worst environmental impact.

Paper's Stats

Animal Status

No animals were harmed for this research.

Pesticides used for crop production can have significant negative impacts on the environment. The potential impact varies between crops based on the level of pesticides used. By knowing what crops go into producing particular food products, we can work out how much pesticide is associated with that food. This process, called Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), is important for determining the environmental impacts of different foods and products. Other common uses of LCA are to assess environmental impacts such as the carbon footprint or land use of foods and products.

Bar graph of ecotoxicity impact by food product type
Graphical abstract reproduced from original paper (Nordborg et al 2017).

A recent study out of Sweden used LCA to determine the freshwater ecotoxicity of animal-based and plant-based foods. They selected 6 different foods that require crop inputs to be produced. The foods they assessed were minced beef, minced pork, chicken fillet, milk, wheat bread and pea soup.

Using data collected from a Swedish production system they first identified which crops were required to produce these foods. These crops included bread wheat, field peas, feed wheat, rapeseed, barley, oats, grass/clover and soybean. They then used data on pesticide use for each crop type to calculate the potential freshwater ecotoxicity impacts of producing 1kg of each crop.

For each food product they calculated the number of kg of crop feed required to produce one kg of the food. For example, to produce 1kg of chicken fillet it takes 0.2kg rapeseed, 2.5kg of feed wheat, and 1kg of soybeans. With this information they were able to calculate the potential freshwater ecotoxicity impact for each food product based on the values they calculated for each crop type.

So what did they find?

In regards to crops, the potential ecotoxicity impact increased in the following order starting with the lowest impact being grass/clover → feed wheat → bread wheat → peas → rapeseed → oats → barley → soybeans. With soybeans potential ecotoxicity impact being 1159 times larger than grass/clover! This means that the foods that use soybeans in their production will have much higher potential ecotoxicity than those that use grass/clover.

When looking at the food products, the potential ecotoxicity impact increased in the following order with the lowest impact being pea soup → bread → milk → minced beef → chicken fillet → minced pork. With minced beef, chicken fillet and minced pork having 50, 138 and 168 times greater impact potentials than peas.

They also calculated the potential ecotoxicity impact based on several different food unit types including food mass (kg), food energy content (Mcal), kg protein, kg digestible protein and kg-PQI-adjusted food (AD). The two plant based products, pea soup and wheat bread, had <5% impact potential compared to chicken fillet across all units.

So what’s it mean?

This study really highlights the environmental impacts that inefficiencies in animal-based food production causes. In animal agriculture we use much more energy and nutrients to produce the same amount of edible food. Our choice to eat animal-based foods instead of plant-based foods directly contributes to environmental pollution.

Of particular interest was the finding that beef products in the swedish agricultural system have a lower ecotoxicity impact that pork or chicken. This contradicts the common idea that eating less beef is a good alternative to giving up meat entirely. This is based on the premise that cow production has a much larger environmental impact than producing pigs or chickens. While this is true for greenhouse gas emissions and land use, it’s not when we talk about ecotoxicity. I think this finding should be food for thought for those simply advocating a reduction in beef consumption, and often a shift to other animal-based meats such as chicken. In light of this study such a dietary shift could have significant negative environmental impacts when it comes to pollution.

It is clear from the results of this study that diet related environmental impacts could be significantly reduced by shifting to a plant-based diet.



Pesticides: toxic substances that are released intentionally into our environment to kill living things, including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

Ecotoxicity: the potential for chemicals to affect the environment.

Life Cycle Analysis: a method to assess the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life.

kg Protein: the share of protein for each kg of food.

kg Digestible Protein: the share of protein for each kg of food and the share of digestible protein. Some foods have lower digestibility than others.

kg-PQI-adjusted food (AD): a value that takes into account various factors about a food product and should be used to rank products.

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Adam with his beautiful cat Fabi

Dr Adam Cardilini

I’m a scientist, teacher and activist. My training is in ecological and environmental science, but I love all science and enjoy sharing it with others.

Title: Freshwater ecotoxicity impacts from pesticide use in animal and vegetable foods produced in Sweden

Authors: Maria Nordborg, Jennifer Davis, Christel Cederberg, Anna Woodhouse

Journal: Science of the Total Environment

Date Published: January 9, 2017


Paper Access

Behind Paywal

Research Type

Peer-reviewed research