4 Worst Types of Meat for the Environment
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If you thought that beef was the worst meat for the environment, you are right. But not exactly for the reasons you may think—and other meats are taking their share of the blame now, too. The latest data from organizations in global sustainability have shed some new light on the worst types of meat for the environment, yet further confirming some environmentalists’ greatest concerns.
The worst types of meat for the environment include beef, lamb and mutton, pork, and also some farmed fish products. They are especially bad for the environment because of their land and water requirements alongside their greenhouse gas contributions and freshwater withdrawals.
If you’re looking to make better food choices in the name of environmental protection, reducing your meat intake is a great place to start. Let’s take a look at some of the worst types of meat for the environment, the latest data behind such determination, and what dietary choices you can make to help reduce the impact that meat has on our environment.
The Environmental Impacts Currently Being Studied
Environmentalists understand that their food choices have an impact on the planet—for better or worse. Recent studies have taken a closer look at the environmental impact of food production, revealing a handful of meat products that have become some of the most urgent concerns.
Our World in Data is a non-profit organization based at the Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development. They are funded primarily by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Department of Health and Social Care (UK), and German philanthropist Susanne Klatten.
In January 2020, they put out their preliminary findings from the latest ongoing project that is taking a close look at the environmental impacts of food globally. Their findings confirm some things we already suspected or knew about meat production, but it also sheds some light on what the solution needs to be.
The Overall Problems
The report provides an initial picture of the problem with a few statistical claims to summarize the main global impacts considered:
- Food production is responsible for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide
- 50% of habitable land is utilized for agriculture—the other 50% is 37% forests, 11% shrub, 1% urban and built-up land, and 1% freshwater.
- 70% of freshwater withdrawals go to global agriculture.
- Agriculture causes 78% of eutrophication in ocean and freshwater.
- Livestock accounts for 94% of mammal biomass, outweighing wild mammals by a ratio of 15:1, threatening many species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List with extinction.
As you can see, emissions from greenhouse gasses (GHG from here on out) are somewhat of a less pressing issue when compared to the staggering figures presented for freshwater withdrawals and eutrophication (and even less so when compared to emissions from the transportation industry).
However, as many are concerned about GHG emissions, we will focus on these figures as they demonstrate the urgent need for change and accurately represent the meats we need to target.
Measuring Greenhouse Gas Emissions
When collecting GHG emissions data, seven aspects were considered so as to be comprehensive throughout the supply chain. They looked at emissions from:
- Land-use change: Both above and belowground, specifically changes in biomass from deforestation and changes in soil carbon
- Farming: Manure, fertilizers, farm machinery, and methane from cows and rice
- Animal feed: Analyzing on-farm crop production and processing for livestock feed
- Processing: Energy used to convert raw products into final food items
- Transport: Energy used to transport both nationally and internationally
- Retail: Energy used for retail processes, primarily from refrigeration
- Packaging: Includes the production of packaging materials, transport, and end-of-life disposal
Immediately we see that transport, retail, and packaging all have a minimal impact across the board, whereas land use and farm emissions are responsible for over 80% of most food’s footprint. Further importance is then put on food type. Considerations into nutritional value were made as we see a comparison of food footprints in terms of calories, protein content, and weight of food products produced.
Livestock and fish farms account for 31% of total agricultural GHG emissions. The leading causes are enteric fermentation (which is the methane produced from cattle’s digestion), emissions from manure and pasture management, and the fuel used in farm fisheries.
The Four Worst Types of Meat for the Environment
Raising Cattle Is Running Amuck
Beef has the highest total emissions of all food products, not just meat. For every kilogram of beef produced, 60 kilograms (132 lbs) of GHGs are emitted (compared to the 1:1 ratio of peas, for example).
Meat and dairy livestock use 77% of all agricultural land, with cattle taking up a large portion—this figure takes into account the land used for grazing and producing animal feed.
As a consequence of being a ruminant animal, cattle produce methane during their digestive processes. The staggering number of cattle we now raise globally has caused us to see significant spikes in the atmosphere’s methane levels.
This has alarmed many people because methane poses a larger threat to the climate than carbon dioxide. The only upside to this is that methane only stays in the atmosphere for 12 years and can be cleared, but the rate at which we are producing it contributes to the changes in climate we’ve seen recently.
Here’s one that may blow your mind: grain-fed beef is actually more sustainable for the environment than grass-fed beef.
The troubling figures we see from beef production is due to the volume in which we raise cattle for food. We can clearly see throughout the report that cattle is the leading cause in nearly every agricultural metric measured, so if we limited our beef production worldwide, we could see incredible improvements in a relatively short period of time.
Sheep Follow Close Behind
Lamb and mutton are the next worst type of meat for the environment, but its total GHG emissions are only two-fifths of beef production. They use the most land per kilogram produced, outranking beef in two of the three subcategories of nutritional comparison.
The majority of emissions come from farming metrics, and this figure is significantly larger in relation to the entire equation than most other foods overall.
Pigging Out on Pork Is Not the Answer
In defense of the swine, poultry is responsible for more pollution caused by land-use change, and many foods—chocolate, coffee, and palm oil, to name a few—rank in between beef and pork.
That doesn’t keep pork production from being the next-highest overall contributor to GHG emissions, with heavy fault placed on animal feed.
Furthermore, pork production has the most freshwater withdrawals of all meat (excluding fish), outranking beef and sheepmeat in two of the three ratios surrounding resources used per amount of food produced. (See, it’s not all the cow’s fault.)
Farmed Fish and Prawns Are Also in Hot Water
Not going unnoticed, farmed fish and prawns also rank higher than other food among some of the worst meat figures we see. Fisheries use more freshwater withdrawals than beef, sheep, pig, and poultry combined. The majority of their GHG emissions come from farming and feed, wherein the leading cause is energy use needed to keep the fisheries running.
Worth mentioning here is even wild-caught fish rank higher in farm emissions than pork and poultry combined due to the fuel used by fishing vessels.
Surf, Turf, and Earth: A Diet of Balance
So, what’s the answer?
Livestock farming will never be completely abandoned—at least not in a world where Mother Earth’s ecosystem reigns supreme. There are far too many who rely on the industry for income, and meat (and dairy) is a key source of nutrition, particularly in low-income countries where dietary options are scarce. And it can even be part of sustainable agriculture.
If we are going to reduce the GHG emissions from agriculture, the responsibility lies in both the consumers and the producers. As we have seen, GHG emissions are heavily skewed toward the high-impact food producers, many of which are meat products, with the worst being beef.
Geography plays a large role in the figures for beef, lamb, and aquaculture, as the approaches to farming vary to conform to local conditions like terrain, temperature, and soil fertility. Ergo, producing foods that contribute to the local ecosystem will reduce total GHG agricultural emissions. Even further reduction comes when producers fully understand and adopt the best practices in farm and land management.
The biggest difference consumers can make with their choices involves protein intake. Plant-based foods have lower carbon footprints than meat (and dairy) whether you compare them in protein content, calories, or weight (even though they might come with their own set of challenges to watch out for). Supplementing meat with protein sources like nuts, peas, beans, and tofu will be impactful regardless of where you live.
Beef and other meats help meet significant nutritional needs worldwide – but at great costs! And the rate at which we currently raise livestock is unsustainable and damaging to the environment. With the environmental impacts of meat becoming impossible to ignore, the best solution is to reduce the amount of meat—most significantly, beef—in our diet and take in more plant-based options for protein instead.
- Futurity.org: These Meat and Fish are Worst for the Environment
- Oxford Martin School: The Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development
- Our World in Data: Environmental Impacts of Food Production
- Science Magazine: Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers
- FAO: The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture
- IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Summary Statistics
- Science Direct: Can Carbon Footprint Serve as an Indicator of the Environmental Impact of Meat Production?
- The Conversation: Yes, Eating Meat Affects the Environment, but Cows are Not Killing the Climate
- Thomas Reuters Foundation News: Cars or Livestock: Which Contributes More to Climate Change?
- Cattle.ca: What is a Ruminant Animal?
- My MeatUp: Six Reasons Why Meat is ‘Greener’ Than You Think
- Pubmed: Role of Ruminant Livestock in Sustainable Agricultural Systems
- NCBI: Environmental Impact of Omnivorous, Ovo-lacto-vegetarian, and Vegan