How meat and climate change are linked

Why does meat have such a big impact on the climate?

Think of it this way: it is often more efficient to grow crops for humans than it is to grow crops for animals and then turn those animals into food for humans. Researchers from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that on average it takes about 1400 grams of grain to grow 500 grams of meat.

Of course, some might say that cows, chickens, and pigs often eat things that humans wouldn’t eat, such as herbs or plant debris. This is true. But as a general rule, it takes more land, energy, and water to produce 500 grams of animal protein than it does to produce 500 grams of vegetable protein.

Beef and lamb have a particularly large climate footprint for another reason: cows and sheep have bacteria in their stomachs that help them digest grass and other foods. But these bacteria create methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which is then released through burping (and flatulence).

Does it matter how cows are raised?

Yes. For example, in Bolivia and Brazil, the world’s largest exporters of beef, millions of acres of rainforest have been burned to make way for meat production. In addition, the carbon footprint of a herd of cattle can vary significantly depending on factors such as local climatic conditions and their levels. 

But what if you feed cows with grass and do not grow grain specifically for them?

Grass-fed cattle spend more time on the farm, producing more methane. 

Should people stop eating meat altogether to help the climate?

If we want to feed a growing population without resorting to global warming or putting more pressure on the world’s forests, it will matter if the most hardened meat-eaters moderate their appetites.

What about artificial cell meat?

Indeed, there are more meat substitutes in the world. Made from vegetables, starches, oils and synthesized proteins, these products mimic the taste and texture of meat more closely than traditional substitutes such as tofu and seitan.

While there is still no decision as to whether these foods are healthier, they appear to have a smaller environmental footprint: one recent study found that Beyond Burger had only one-tenth of the climate impact by compared to a beef burger.

In the future, researchers will be able to “grow” real meat from animal cell cultures – work in this direction continues. But it’s still too early to tell how climate-friendly this will be, not least because it could take a lot of energy to produce cell-grown meat.

What about seafood?

Yes, fish has a lower carbon footprint than chicken or pork. The lowest in shellfish, mussels and scallops. However, the main and significant source of emissions is the fuel burned by fishing boats. 

What impact do milk and cheese have on climate change?

A number of studies have shown that milk generally has a smaller climate footprint than chicken, eggs, or pork. Yogurt, cottage cheese and cream cheese are close in terms of milk.

But many other types of cheese, such as cheddar or mozzarella, can have a significantly larger footprint than chicken or pork, as it usually takes about 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese.

Wait, cheese is worse than chicken?

It depends on the cheese. But in general, yes, if you choose to become a vegetarian by, say, eating cheese rather than chicken, your carbon footprint may not drop as much as you expect.

Is organic milk better?

In the United States, this “organic” label on milk means cows spent at least 30% of their time grazing, received no hormones or antibiotics, and ate feed that was raised without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. It is certainly attractive to the health of many people. But there is no requirement that an organic dairy farm have a lower climate footprint than a conventional farm. The trouble is, there’s nothing on the organic label that tells you specifically about the climate impact of this milk. 

Which plant based milk is best?

Almond, oat and soy milk have lower greenhouse gas emissions than cow’s milk. But, as always, there are downsides and trade-offs to consider. Almonds, for example, require a lot of water to grow. If you are interested in more information, then you can find it in ours. 

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