Meat certainly gets a bad rep when it comes to its Carbon Foodprint. And to a degree it deserves most of it; climate change is increasing rapidly and agriculture is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane. We grow grain crops specifically for livestock, and use large swathes of arable land dedicated to rearing beasts.
Global meat consumption has increased rapidly over the past 50 years, from 70 million tonnes to over 330 million tonnes in 2018. The world population has more than doubled since the 1960s, and alongside it – incomes. The global average income more than tripled, and typically the richer we are, the more meat we eat.
We have a deadly batch of ingredients stewing; not only are there more people in the world - there are more people who can afford to eat meat.
What’s the beef with meat and GHG?
The common claim that livestock represents more global GHG emissions than transportation is misleading. They fail to look at transportation’s carbon footprint, ignoring the impact of manufacturing parts and materials, assembly, and maintaining roads, and other infrastructure. Instead, they only factored in exhaust emissions emitted by finished planes, trains and automobiles.
Global emissions have significantly increased in the past century, with the energy production sector contributing about 75% of total GHG emissions. Agriculture, transport, and other land-use changes make up some of the other largest contributors.
Recent research shows global tourism emerging as a major contributor - with flights, hotels, food and souvenirs - and is responsible for around 8% of global greenhouse emissions.
However, meat’s footprint is not limited to emissions; the quantity of land, water, and energy required also needs to be considered. We use 50% of global habitable area for agriculture (37% is forested; 11% shrubbery; and only 1% as urban). And almost 80% of that agricultural land is used for livestock. Lamb and beef are by far our worst offenders, thanks to their methane emissions and high demands on land and water.
There is huge difference in energy required to produce one calorie; approximately 25x more energy is required to produce one calorie of beef than to produce one calorie of corn. The amount of feed needed to produce one kilogram of meat product is significant.
Meatfree Mondays ain’t going to save planet
Many people think avoiding meat will make a significant difference to global emissions. But according to a recent study, if Americans eliminated all animal protein from their diets, they would reduce their greenhouse emissions by less than 3%.
But when it comes to their carbon footprint, not all foods are created equal. These are some of the foods that produce the most greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food.
Lamb: 39.2 kg CO2e
Lay off the lamb. Lamb meat tends to have higher net emissions, because they produce less meat in relation to live weight than cows. It takes much longer on pasture for a calf to reach market size - pooping, urinating, and belching methane gas all the way. Add to that the fact that a lot of lamb is imported globally, so some of its carbon footprint comes from shipping.
Beef: 27 kg CO2e
Not as bad as lamb, beef still has a substantial carbon footprint. Cows produce a lot of methane, and require a lot of water and arable land.
Cheese: 13.5 kg CO2e
A kilogram of cheese requires up to 10 kg milk, which in turn, comes from a dairy cow. So think twice before you sit down to a delicious wheel of cheddar next time!
Pork: 12.1 kg CO2e
Et tu, bacon?! Indeed - GHG emissions from pig rearing systems are primarily nitrous oxide, and the gas is 300 times more efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Chicken: 6.9 kg CO2e
Chicken isn’t the most carbon-intensive meat, and produces less overall emissions during each phase of production, processing, and cooking. So if you like eating meat but want to reduce your foodprint, chicken is the way to go.
Tuna: 6.1 kg CO2e
One of our favourite seafood items - tuna - is in hot water too. Deep-sea fishing requires enormous amounts of fuel, along with cannery operations, cold storage and transportation by air.
Let’s not forget about the environmental impact of palm oil, soya bean oil, rape oil and even sunflower oil. Plant-based diets are hardly innocent either, as we kill deer, rabbits, moles and birds to protect food crops. And our exploding population means farmers simply cannot meet demand without nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides.
So some general guidance is appropriate, and eating less meat will have a positive impact on the planet and climate. A blanket agricultural production model will not work across the world, as it’s important to consider local ecosystems when deliberating how best to produce food with the lowest carbon footprint.
Maybe cannibalism is the answer – could kill two birds with one stone!
Data Sources: ourworldindata.org/CO₂ and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions; UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO); weforum.org/shaping-the-future-of-environment-and-natural-resource-security; Environmental Working Group: The Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health