The Carbon Footprint Of Meat: Which Meats Are The Least Ecological?

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Have you ever thought about the environmental impact of the food you eat? Have some of your vegan friends tried to convince you that eating less meat is super-important for the planet? Or have you just seen an interesting article title and clicked on the link to see what it’s about? In any case, welcome to Veggiepedia and welcome to our very first ecology article!


1. Meats By Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In the table below, you can see meats and a few other foods ordered by the greenhouse gas emissions (measured at grams of 100-year CO2 equivalents) they produce per gram of protein produced.

Food TypesGreenhouse Gas Emissions
(g CO2-Ceq per g protein)
Ruminant Meat (beef, lamb etc.)62
Recirculating Aquaculture30
Trawling Fishery26
Non-recirculating Aquaculture12
Pork10
Poultry10
Dairy9.1
Non-trawling Fishery8.6
Eggs6.8
Starchy Roots1.7
Wheat1.2
Maize1.2
Legumes0.25

The table says that ruminant meat (meat from cows, buffaloes, sheep and goats, predominantly cows) is twice as bad for the climate as common types of fishery, and 6 times as bad as poultry, dairy or eggs.

We now know the ratios between types of animal meat, when it comes to emissions. But what about the total emissions of the animal agriculture sector? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has recently estimated that livestock (including poultry) accounts for about 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions estimated as 100-year CO_2 equivalents. That is the same amount of emissions as the whole transportation industry (14%)!

At the same time, vegan foods such as starchy roots, wheat, maize or legumes produce significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than meats. There is a stark contrast between beef (62), fish meat (8-30), pork (10), poultry (10) and starchy roots (1.7), wheat (1.2), maize (1.2) and legumes (1.2). This data table clearly shows that going from meat eating to full veganism would reduce your food’s carbon footprint many times, even a partial transition towards a more plant-based diet would do wonders.


2. Meats By Land Use

Now, when it comes to ecology and meats, greenhouse gas emissions are not the only important factor. Since high land use is associated with deforestation, it pays off to look at land use as well. In the following table, you can see the average land use per 100g of protein for various foods.

Food TypesLand Use (m2year per 100g protein)
Lamb and mutton185
Beef164
Cheese41
Pork11
Poultry7.1
Eggs5.7
Farmed fish3.7
Groundnuts3.5
Peas3.4
Tofu2.2

The table looks similar to the previous table. Beef nearly hits the top of the list again, whereas vegan substitutes like groundnuts, peas or tofu are in the last places. Now, this is interesting. The production of beef requires 74 times more land per 100g of protein than the production than tofu. Seventy four times!

Another thing to consider, creating new land for cattle grazing or for the production of feed is often associated with deforestation. The humanity already removed a half of the world’s rainforests and we keep losing rainforests at the pace of 30 football fields per minute. We desperately need to slow down deforestation. And so next time you will be picking which food to eat, remember the food land use table above. Because you can play a role in that slowdown.


3. Meats By Water Use

Lastly, let’s take a look at how much water the production of each of meats consumes because water is a scarce resource and water shortages are going to be more common in the future due to global warming.

Food TypesEstimated virtual water requirements (m³ water/ton)
Beef16,730
Pork5,470
Cheese5,290
Poultry3,810
Eggs3,520
Rice2,550
Soybeans2,520
Wheat1,440
Maize1,020
Milk740
Potatoes130

Beef is the worst, followed by pork, cheese, poultry and eggs.

Notice the sharp contrast between beef (16,730) and milk (740). The reason is that a meat cow provides an amount of meat that is very small (about 200 kg) compared to the amount of milk a dairy cow produces over the course of its lifetime (about 70,000 liters, which weighs roughly 70,000 kg). Both types of cow drink water at about the same pace. And even though dairy cows live longer, for about 6 years, compared to 1.5 years for meat cows, the difference in the weight of food produced is too big.

The production of one ton of beef requires 16,730 cubic meters of water, 16.7 million liters. A ton of beef meat, that is meat from about five cows. Divide 16,730 by five, and you see that one meat cow requires about three thousand cubic meters, that’s three million liters of water over the lifetime of one meat cow. Three million liters! Imagine how many people you could supply with that amount of water for 1 year. A human drinks two liters of water a day, about 700 liters a year, now 3 million divided by 700, that is around 4 300 people for 1 year. A lot of water, isn’t it? So why don’t we give that water to those people directly, rather than giving it all to a cow to produce just a few burgers?

Another fact, this time from the documentary movie Cowspiracy, the production of 1 beef burger requires as much water as 2 months of showering (once a day). You could save the same amount of water by not showering for 2 months as by not eating another beef hamburger.


Conclusion

So what is the conclusion after looking at the three data tables above? It is clear that beef is the number one villain. It has the worst carbon footprint by far, uses a lot of land and also uses the most water. And so if there is only one thing you should change about your diet if you care for the planet, it’s ditching beef. However, it is also clear that vegan meals like legumes and wheat are very ecological. That means, making a transition towards a more plant-based diet could be your step 2. And at our website, you can find useful materials that can help you with that. Thank you for reading our article and welcome to Veggiepedia.

Sources

[1] Wikipedia: Environmental impact of meat production

[2] Wikipedia: Cattle

[3] Cowspiracy: Facts

[4] World Resources Institute: Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest-Growing Source of Global Emissions: Transport

[5] Grunge.com: “How much milk does a cow produce in its lifetime?”

[6] Clover Meadows Beef: “Buying a cow. How much beef is it? (video)”

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