The best way to cut your food-related carbon footprint is probably not to eat any meat, but if you’re not willing to go that far a new study breaks down the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) of different types of meat and beef is by far the worst.
Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that livestock emissions are on the rise and that beef cattle are responsible for far more GHGs than other animals, including chicken and pork. Meat production’s heavy environmental toll is not new, but the scale is surprising: The study found that beef requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water, and results in five times more GHG emissions.
A similar study published in the journal Climate Change this week found that from 1961 to 2010 global GHGs from livestock increased 51 percent. Much of this is due to increased demand for meat, especially in developing countries. So even as developed countries curtail demand and become more efficient producers, the scale of the problem is growing along with global GHG concentrations.
“The developing world is getting better at reducing greenhouse emissions caused by each animal, but this improvement is not keeping up with the increasing demand for meat,” said Dario Caro, a researcher on the study. “As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock keep going up and up in much of the developing world.”
Researchers found that beef and dairy cattle account for just about three-fourths of livestock-related GHG emissions, with 54 percent coming from beef cattle and 17 percent from dairy cattle. This is partly due to the sheer abundance of the animal but also from the higher levels of methane and nitrous oxide that they emit. Sheep comprised nine percent, buffalo seven percent, pigs five percent, and goats four percent.
On an energy-required-per-calorie assessment, pork, poultry, and eggs have roughly the same degree of environmental cost, and dairy is comparable as well.
However demand for all these foods is predicted by some scientists to double by 2050, making GHG reductions a tall order. Agricultural emissions account for about 15 percent of all GHGs, half of which come from livestock. With some two billion more people to feed expected by 2050 some are calling for help in getting people to eat less meat, especially beef.
“The big story is just how dramatically impactful beef is compared to all the others,” Prof. Gidon Eshel, at Bard College in New York state, told the Guardian. “I would strongly hope that governments stay out of people’s diet, but at the same time there are many government policies that favor of the current diet in which animals feature too prominently. Remove the artificial support given to the livestock industry and rising prices will do the rest. In that way you are having less government intervention in people’s diet and not more.”
In the meantime, important consumer decisions have a powerful impact on an individual’s carbon footprint. Prof. Tim Benton, at the University of Leeds, told the Guardian that “the biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat.”