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The environmental impact of Quinoa and how we calculated it4 min read

Quinoa is tasty, but what is the CO₂ footprint of it? And how does it compare to its biggest competitor - rice?

Toby Liebsch

Product Marketing at Ecochain.

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They are on every corner of today’s urban epicenters:

Hip salad and food bowl dealers offer fresh and nutritious… well, salads and food bowls.

And there’s one ingredient that needs to be in every food bowl:

Quinoa.

The superfood hailing from the Andes has been cultivated more than 5000 years, and the story behind it is a big reason for its success.

But critics say that it’s not without downsides:

The growing demand for Quinoa is said to be changing the infrastructure of fragile economies.

While we are certainly no experts on that, we wanted to take a closer look at the environmental footprint of Quinoa.

What is the CO2 footprint of Quinoa, and where does it come from?

What is Quinoa made from?

To understand the environmental impact of anything, we have to first understand what it is made from.

What are the components that go into 1 kilogram of Quinoa?

If you grow the Quinoa yourself, you know the components you’re using. But if you don’t, you have to rely on external sources.

That’s what we did in this case. Kellogg’s already revealed the components that go into the production of their Quinoa. We used these quantities for our own analysis.

Inputs and outputs

Manufacturing or growing a product is a process that includes inputs and outputs. While the inputs are the components that go into the actual product, the outputs can be more diverse:

They can be in form of the actual product (the Quinoa), emissions to water, soil or air (that could be CO₂), or waste.

In the case of our Quinoa, the inputs come from nature (Carbon dioxide, Energy, Water) and from man-made sources (“Inputs from the technosphere”).

What are these inputs according to Kellogg’s?

  • Quinoa seeds
  • Quinoa fertilizer
    • Potassium
    • Urea
  • Pesticides
    • URPI
    • ENTRUST
  • Input for machinery
    • Diesel for cultivation
    • Diesel for sowing and planting
    • Tillage
  • Input for irrigation
    • Surface irrigation
    • Sprinkler irrigation
    • Drip irrigation
  • Emissions
    • Direct field emissions
    • Heavy metal emissions
    • Water emissions

The data from Kellogg’s also came with quantities that we can use to calculate the impact of 1 kg of Quinoa.

When we model this in Mobius, this structure looks like this (click to expand).

Kellogg's Quinoa, modeled in Mobius
Kellogg’s Quinoa, modeled in Mobius

Connecting the product to a Life Cycle Database

You might ask yourself: How does this structure help me if I don’t know how much CO₂ is emitted by Potassium? Or Quinoa seeds?

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That is where Life Cycle Inventory Databases like Ecoinvent come into play. Ecoinvent is the world’s biggest database for life cycle inventory data – and with hundreds of thousands of datasets, it’s the perfect starting point to calculate any environmental footprint.

Combined with our own LCA algorithms, Ecoinvent allows us to calculate environmental footprints of pretty much any product, fast.

So now the only thing we need to do is connect the products in our structured list with the right references in Mobius. The rest will be taken care of by Mobius.

This is how the results look like. The total impact of 1kg of Quinoa is, in this case, 1,48kg of CO₂. The impact comes, exclusively, from man-made resources, with the biggest driver being the machinery used to produce the product.

Quinoa modeled in Mobius
Biggest drivers of impact for Quinoa, ranked.

But why do “Heavy metal emissions” have no CO₂ footprint? This is because they are emissions to the soil – they have no impact on air pollution, which is what is measured with CO₂.

This changes when we change the impact category we base our analysis on. If we would analyze the Quinoa with a more holistic indicator, like the Environmental Cost Indicator, these emissions could have quite a significant impact.

Comparing the environmental footprint of Quinoa and Rice

The biggest competitor of Quinoa is rice. Luckily, we can rely on some research data for the environmental footprint of rice. In this paper from 2013, researchers from the Ecological Society of China analyzed Rice from different sources.

Our Quinoa accounts for 1,48 kg CO₂ per kg. How do the different regions of rice compare?

Rice from the Guangdong province accounted for 2,5 kg CO₂ per kg of rice. Twice that of our Quinoa!

On the lower end, rice from the Jiangsu area only had a CO₂ footprint of 1,34 kg CO₂ per kg. Slightly lower than our Quinoa, but a comparable value.

This shows an important observation: Environmental footprints can vary greatly in between products. They should never be generalized – and if you happen to sell Quinoa (or any other product), you should get in touch so we can help you measure your footprint, too.

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