Exchange of carbon dioxide (CO2) from soils can contribute significantly to the global warming potential (GWP) of agro-ecosystems. Due to variations in soil type, climatic conditions and land management practices, exchange of CO2 can differ markedly in different geographical locations. The food industry is developing carbon footprints for their products necessitating integration of CO2 exchange from soils with other CO2 emissions along the food chain. It may be advantageous to grow certain crops in different geographical locations to minimize CO2 emissions from the soil, and this may provide potential to offset other emissions in the food chain, such as transport. 2. Values are derived for the C balance of soils growing horticultural crops in the UK, Spain and Uganda. Net ecosystem production (NEP) is firstly calculated from the difference in net primary production (NPP) and heterotrophic soil respiration (Rh). Both NPP and Rh were estimated from intensive direct field measurements. Secondly, net biome production (NBP) is calculated by subtracting the crop biomass from NEP to give an indication of C balance. The importance of soil exchange is discussed in the light of recent discussions on carbon footprints and within the context of food life-cycle assessment (LCA). 3. The amount of crop relative to the biomass and the Rh prevailing in the different countries were the dominant factors influencing the magnitude of NEP and NBP. The majority of the biomass for lettuce Lactuca sativa and vining peas Pisum sativum, was removed from the field as crop; therefore, NEP and NBP were mainly negative. This was amplified for lettuces grown in Uganda (-16·5 and -17 t C ha-1 year-1 compared to UK and Spain -4·8 to 7·4 and -5·1 to 6·3 t C ha-1 year-1 for NEP and NBP, respectively) where the climate elevated Rh. 4. Synthesis and applications. This study demonstrates the importance of soil emissions in the overall life cycle of vegetables. Variability in such emissions suggests that assigning a single value to food carbon footprints may not be adequate, even within a country. Locations with high heterotrophic soil respiration, such as Spain and Uganda (21·9 and 21·6 t C ha-1 year-1, respectively), could mitigate the negative effects of climate on the C costs of crop production by growth of crops with greater returns of residue to the soil. This would minimize net CO2 emissions from these agricultural ecosystems.