The Most Environmentally Friendly Meat – Carbon Footprint of Meats

The Most Environmentally Friendly Meat: Choosing Your Options

Is there meat that impacts the environment least? And if so, what is the most environmentally friendly meat? A roast dinner with meat as the main dish used to happen every week. But in the last 50 years, the number of people who want meat products has gone through the roof.

The average family eats lamb, beef, pork, chicken, seafood, and processed meat daily. And farming has had to change to keep up with demand.

When it comes to choosing the most environmentally friendly meat, there are a few things to consider. The first is the impact of livestock farming on greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change.

The second thing to consider is the impact of livestock farming on water resources. It takes a lot of water to produce meat – for example, it takes around 15,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of beef. This has a major impact on water availability and can lead to water shortages in areas where livestock farming is intensive.

The third thing to consider is the impact of livestock farming on biodiversity. Intensive livestock farming can lead to habitat loss and the fragmentation of ecosystems. This can have a serious impact on wildlife populations, as well as the overall health of our planet.

Carbon footprint of different meat sources

In 2018 a study in the journal Science reported on the carbon intensity of protein sources. The authors were two researchers from the University of Oxford, Poore and Nemecek. They collected data on multiple environmental impacts of ∼38,000 farms producing 40 different agricultural goods. In one of their analyses they had calculated the carbon intensity of high protein sources.

Poore and Nemecek’s analysis of carbon intensity. Each value metric in the original study was given a range to describe the confidence and uncertainty in estimates.

Carbon intensity of beef and mutton are the highest

Of the different kinds of meat they studied, beef and mutton had the highest carbon intensity per 100 g of protein. I suspect 100 g was picked as a unit because its a “nice” number and is almost two people’s worth of protein per day. When calculated this way, 100 g of beef protein is estimated to be associated with a 50 kg CO2 cost. An American who might be responsible for 15 tons of CO2 over a year. Each day that budget is ~40 kg of CO2. So 50 g of beef protein would generate 25 kg of CO2 which is about 60% of the daily carbon budget.

One reason cited often for the high carbon impact is the release of large amounts of methane. Methane gas is a natural breakdown component of a ruminant animal’s digestion. These animals include cows and sheep – sources of beef and mutton respectively. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas. It is much more potent, pound for pound, compared to CO2.

Carbon intensity of chicken is lowest

Some people ask if eating chicken is bad for the environment. In one sense, eating chicken is very good for the environment. Unlike beef and mutton, chicken and by extension all farmed poultry, is low carbon intensity. The carbon impact for an equivalent 100 g of protein is only 10% that of beef. Because poultry is so good for carbon reduction, we focus on poultry options.

As we’ve described before, there are alternatives to meat protein. Eggs, soy and nuts are all high protein substitutes and are plausible replacements. They have the additional benefit of being super low in carbon impact. 100g of nut protein generates less than 1 kg of CO2. We reproduce the chart above with the table of numbers below.

Meat sourceEmissions kg CO2 / 100 g protein
Beef (herd raised)50
Mutton20
Crustacean18
Cheese11
Fish (farmed)6
Chicken5.7
Eggs4.2
Tofu2
Nuts0.3

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Types Of The Most Environmentally Friendly Meat

Here we list out 5 poultry choices, given the extraordinarily low carbon impact of farmed chicken and the like.

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Duck
  • Goose
  • Quail

Now that we have looked at the three main impact factors of meat production, let’s take a more detailed look at each type of poultry to see which is the most environmentally friendly.

Chicken

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, chicken has the smallest carbon footprint of all the poultry options. This is because chickens are relatively efficient converters of feed into meat. In terms of water use, chicken also has a relatively small impact. It takes around 4,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of chicken meat. The main negative impact of chicken production is on biodiversity, as intensive chicken farming can lead to habitat loss.

Turkey

Turkey has a slightly larger carbon footprint than chicken because turkeys are not as efficient converters of feed into meat. In terms of water use, turkey has a similar impact to chicken. The most significant adverse effect that turkey production can have on biodiversity is the loss of habitat, which can be caused by intensive turkey farming.

Duck

Duck has a similar carbon footprint to chicken and turkey, as ducks are also relatively efficient converters of feed into meat. However, duck meat production requires more water than chicken or turkey – around 5,000 liters per 1kg of duck meat. The biggest negative effect of duck production is on biodiversity, as intense duck farming can result in habitat destruction.

Goose

Goose has a slightly larger carbon footprint than chicken because geese are not as efficient converters of feed into meat. In terms of water use, the goose has a similar impact to the duck. Due to habitat degradation from extensive geese farming, the greatest adverse effect of goose production is on biodiversity.

Quail

Quail have a relatively small carbon footprint, as quails are very efficient converters of feed into meat. In terms of water use, quail has a similar impact to chicken. Primarily detrimental to biodiversity, extensive quail farming can result in habitat loss.

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Which Is The Most Environmentally Friendly Meat?

As you can see, all poultry options have a significant impact on the environment. If you are looking for the most environmentally friendly meat, chicken is probably your best option. However, all poultry options hurt biodiversity, so if this is a key concern for you, you may want to choose another protein source altogether.

There are many factors to consider when trying to choose the most environmentally friendly meat. The three main impact factors are greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and biodiversity. Of these, chicken has the smallest carbon footprint and requires the least amount of water per kilogram of meat produced. Despite this, biodiversity is affected by any poultry alternative. If this is a major issue for you, you may want to consider switching to a different type of protein.

Factors To Consider In Your Choice

To make the most informed decision possible, it is important to consider all of the factors involved in meat production. These include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Water use
  • Land use
  • Biodiversity
  • Animal welfare

You will need to decide which of these factors are most important to you to make the best choice for your values.

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Other Environmentally Friendly Meat Choices

If you are looking for other environmentally friendly meat choices, there are many options available. Some of the most environmentally friendly meats include:

Fish

Seafood generally has a low impact on the environment. This is because fish are very efficient converters of feed into meat. In addition, seafood requires less land and water than most other types of meat. The main negative impact of seafood production is on biodiversity, as some fishing methods can damage delicate marine ecosystems.

Lamb

Lamb has a relatively big carbon footprint, as sheep are very poor converters of feed into meat. In addition, lamb requires more land and water than most other types of meat.

Pork

Pork has a similar carbon footprint to chicken, as pigs are relatively efficient converters of feed into meat. However, pork production requires more water than chicken – around 5,000 liters per 1kg of pork. The main negative impact of pork production is on animal welfare, as some intensive pork farms can have poor conditions for the animals.

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Least Environmentally Friendly Meat Choices

There are also some types of meat that have a very large impact on the environment. We already covered beef in the Poore and Nemecek study. Others include:

Beef

Beef has a very large carbon footprint because cows are not very efficient converters of feed into meat. In addition, beef production requires a lot of land and water. The main negative impact of beef production is on greenhouse gas emissions, as cattle farming is a major contributor to climate change.

Veal

Veal has an even larger carbon footprint than beef because calves are even less efficient converters of feed into meat. In addition, veal production requires a lot of land and water. The main negative impact of veal production is on animal welfare, as most veal calves are raised in intensive conditions.

Foie gras

Foie gras has a very large carbon footprint because ducks and geese are not very efficient converters of feed into meat. In addition, foie gras production requires a lot of land and water. The major negative impact of foie gras production is on animal welfare, as most ducks and geese used for foie gras are force-fed.

There are numerous variables to think about when searching for the greenest beef option. Ultimately, your values and interests will determine the best option. Chicken is a good choice if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint. To be on the safe side, though, those who care about animal rights might wish to steer clear of pig and veal. Seafood and lamb are good options if you care about biodiversity. To make a well-informed decision, it is important to complete your homework.

Making The Best Choice For You

There is no single “best” choice when it comes to meat. The most important thing is to make a choice that aligns with your values. If you are concerned about the environment, choose meat that has a low impact on greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use. If you are concerned about animal welfare, choose meat that comes from animals that have been raised in humane conditions. And if you are concerned about biodiversity, choose meat that has a low impact on ecosystems and wildlife. Ultimately, the best choice is the one that is best for you.

Staff Writer
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