Giving up beef will reduce carbon footprint more than cars, says expert

Study shows red meat dwarfs others for environmental impact, using 28 times more land and 11 times more water than for pork or chicken.

The heavy impact on the environment of meat production was known but the research shows a new scale and scope of damage, particularly for beef. The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.

Agriculture is a significant driver of global warming and causes 15% of all emissions, half of which are from livestock. Furthermore, the huge amounts of grain and water needed to raise cattle is a concern to experts worried about feeding an extra 2 billion people by 2050. But previous calls for people to eat less meat in order to help the environment, or preserve grain stocks, have been highly controversial.

Prof Gidon Eshel, at Bard College in New York state led the research on how much land, water and nitrogen fertiliser was needed to raise beef and compared this with poultry, pork, eggs and dairy produce. Beef had a far greater impact than all the others because as ruminants, cattle make far less efficient use of their feed. “Only a minute fraction of the food consumed by cattle goes into the bloodstream, so the bulk of the energy is lost,” said Eshel.

Feeding cattle on grain rather than grass exacerbates this inefficiency, although Eshel noted that even grass-fed cattle still have greater environmental footprints than other animal produce.

Separately, a second study of tens of thousands of British people’s daily eating habits shows that meat lovers’ diets cause double the climate-warming emissions of vegetarian diets.

The study of British people’s diets was conducted by University of Oxford scientists and found that meat-rich diets – defined as more than 100g per day – resulted in 7.2kg of carbon dioxide emissions. In contrast, both vegetarian and fish-eating diets caused about 3.8kg of CO2 per day, while vegan diets produced only 2.9kg. The research analysed the food eaten by 30,000 meat eaters, 16,000 vegetarians, 8,000 fish eaters and 2,000 vegans.

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