Even if all other main sources of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) were stopped, the emissions resulting from food production would still be great enough to cripple our chances of achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, which are to keep global warming below 2C and preferably below 1.5C. In fact, farming and food account for roughly a third of all global GHG emissions, producing approximately 16 billion tonnes of CO2 per year.
Research published in the journal ‘Science’ looked at the most highly produced food types worldwide and calculated the environmental impact of each across a number of categories. The four foods with the highest footprints were beef-herd beef (60kg of CO2e per 1kg); lamb and mutton (25kg of CO2e per 1kg); cheese (21kg of CO2e per 1kg); and dairy-herd beef (21kg of CO2e per 1kg).
The total footprint for each product is divided into the categories of land use change, animal feed, farm, processing, transport, packaging, and retail. All four aforementioned products’ footprints are primarily comprised of the farm category, which relates to the emissions from animals, plants, fertilisers, manure, and machinery.
This trend is seen clearly throughout the data; across all food products’ footprints, the farm category was responsible for 58% of the total emissions. This was followed by land use change at 21% and animal feed at 7.6%. Transport was responsible for only 3.3% of the total emissions, challenging the popular belief that the best thing you can do to lessen your food’s footprint is to buy local.
Across all foods featured in the study, meat and other animal products were by far the greatest emitters, averaging at 24kg of CO2e per 1kg of meat, and 10kg of CO2e per 1kg of animal products. In comparison, the emissions for vegetables averaged at just 0.4kg of CO2e per 1kg. The diagram below shows the carbon footprints of a number of products across the categories of meat, animal products, oils, fruits, and vegetables. The footprints of all products featured in the study can be found here.
If you’ve read to this point, you probably have a good understanding that meats and animal products are pretty awful for the environment. While we can work to reduce the emissions from processing, packaging, feed, land use change, transport, and retail, there is one thing we cannot change; enteric fermentation (farting, essentially). In 2018, enteric fermentation from domestic ruminants (cattle, sheep, etc) was responsible for 178 million tonnes of methane emissions in the USA, making it the largest producer of methane in the country. When assessing the impact that various gasses have on our climate, scientists use what are called Global Warming Potentials (GWPs). All greenhouse gasses are compared to carbon dioxide, which is given a GWP of 1. Methane, by comparison, has a GWP of 25. This means that methane has a warming effect 25 times greater than that of Carbon Dioxide (which we already know is pretty bad).
The truth is that animals are just not very good at turning plant energy into animal energy and produce a lot of methane. The larger the animal is, the worse this tends to get. Bar adopting a vegan diet, the best thing you can do to reduce your food footprint is to make some sustainable swaps. If the average person in the UK swapped out beef for poultry, they would reduce their emissions by approximately 268kg per year!*
When it comes to climate change, many of us can feel overwhelmed and powerless to make a difference. As individuals, it seems like there is very little we can do in the face of governments and global corporations addicted to fossil fuels. However, changing our diets is something we all can do, that can make a huge difference. So please, consider reducing your meat consumption today.
*The average UK household purchases 96g of beef/veal per person per week. For one person, this would equate to 5kg of beef/veal per year, and 298kg of CO2e emissions. In this case, if beef were swapped with poultry, the related emissions would be reduced by 268kg, equalling only 30kg of CO2e.