Low-Carbon Diet: Do I Have to Give Up Meat and Dairy?
A new study examined just how big of a carbon footprint the meat and dairy industry has compared to the rest of our current food system.
Do I have to give up meat and dairy in order to reduce my food CO2 footprint?
When I first started to follow a low-carbon emissions diet, I struggled with this question. I knew that a vegan diet was the most eco-friendly because it meant cutting out all meat and dairy products. However, there was one major dilemma:
I love ice cream. I love Greek yogurt, feta cheese, eggs, and pizza with real cheese. Peanut satay chicken skewers are one of the best-tasting dinners I have had in my entire life.
I would love to be the kind of person who can give up all these delicious foods for the sake of the planet, but I’m not. I want to do well, but I also want to enjoy the things I love, and sometimes that’s a scoop of ice cream on a hot day.
(That said, I have no qualms with veganism. To my cousin and friends who follow it – you have my utmost respect. It’s just not for me!)
So I set out to find more research, reframing my original question: How much meat and dairy should I give up in order to reduce my carbon emissions? Here’s what I found.
Why meat and dairy?
Before diving into the diet comparisons, let’s take a look at why meat and dairy are under scrutiny for their carbon emissions. After all, if I’m going to give up chicken satay and ice cream, I need to see research-supported facts that prove it will make an impact.
- The FAO reported that 18% of global carbon emissions come from livestock, notably cattle.
- Beef and lamb have the highest CO2 emissions per USDA serving size, nearly double that of the next highest-ranking food.
- Non-animal meat substitutes produce 10x less greenhouse gas emissions than beef-based products, according to the American Society for Nutrition.
The reason for meat and dairy’s high greenhouse gas emissions is… cow farts and burps. Seriously. During their gastrointestinal process, cows emit methane, which is the second most-common greenhouse gas and 84x more damaging that CO2 emissions.
Most of us have heard these statements (or similar) before. Still, it’s hard to see the big picture when you just see statistics from different studies and sources. Thankfully, there’s a recent study that dove deep into the environmental impacts of meat and dairy to discover just how big of an impact these foods have on the planet compared to plant-based foods.
What’s the latest research on meat and dairy say?
In 2018 two researchers at the University of Oxford published the most recent and comprehensive study on the topic in the journal Science.
The new research spanned nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries and assess the CO2 emissions of 40 food products from farm to fork. The study also took into account other factors impacting the foods’ overall environmental footprint, including water usage and pollution. If the study itself isn’t impressive enough, the findings blow it out of the water.
- Meat and dairy farms produce 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
- The lowest-impact animal products typically exceeded those of vegetable substitutes.
- Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by over 75% and still feed the world. (That’s as large as US, China, the European Union, and Australia combined.)
Examining all the results from his study, Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford drew this conclusion:
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” he told The Guardian. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.
He goes on to say that not eating animal products yields far better environmental benefits that trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.
The study revealed high variability in CO2 emissions depending on how the same food was produced. In some cases, the “greenest” beef had lower greenhouse gas emissions than farmed lobsters and crabs. That said, even the beef with the lowest CO2 emissions outweighed the highest-emitting cheese, pork, poultry, and farmed fish, as shown in the graphic below from The Guardian.
Those are some depressing stats. What does this new suggest to fix it?
The variability of carbon emissions from beef is, in some ways, its silver lining. Methane emitted from cows is not the only source of greenhouse gas emissions from beef and dairy production nor the only factor that influences meat’s overall environmental footprint.
Reasons why beef and dairy production are environmentally harmful:
- Cattle are the most land-intensive livestock, largely because of their size and diet.
- 80% of the Amazon deforestation is due to cattle ranching.
- Cattle farms require substantial amounts of water and create more waste than other livestock.
- Methane from livestock is responsible for 2/3 of ammonia emissions from human activity, which is a key ingredient in acid rain.
While there’s no taking the methane out of the cow, some farms put into place agricultural practices that can capitalize on these other negative effects. This accounts for the variability in environmental impact of beef and dairy products.
Poore told The Guardian that cutting out the most harmful half of beef and dairy production would achieve two-thirds of the overall benefits from cutting out the foods from people’s diets entirely. However, being so involved in the research itself, Poore no longer eats meat or dairy.
“The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot,” Poore told The Guardian.
So… do I have to go vegan to lower by food carbon emissions?
Take a look at this graphic from Shrink That Footprint. They compared the food consumption and carbon emissions of five different diets: Meat Lover, Average (American), No Beef, Vegetarian, and Vegan.
The results show the average CO2 emission in tons per person per day. That means that a person who follows an average American diet would contribute 2.5 tons of carbon emissions based on the food he or she eats that day. Here’s how the study defined the five diets, based on data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service:
- Meat Lovers: 35% of diet comes from red meat, white meat, and dairy.
- Average American Diet: 25% of diet comes from red meat, white meat, and dairy.
- No Beef: 25% of diet comes from white meat and dairy; no red meat consumed.
- Vegetarian: less than 10% of diet comes from dairy; does not eat meat.
- Vegan: Does not consume any meat or dairy.
You can see that the vegan diet emits less than half the typical meat lover’s diet. Switching all red meat for poultry reduced CO2 emissions by over .5 tons from the average American diet. The differences between the no beef, vegetarian, and vegan diets were comparably closer: only .2 tons.
It’s worth noting that the study did not take into account the food miles, storage, and cooking methods used, which all contribute to higher or lower levels of carbon emissions. These are all post-production sources of carbon emissions, in which people have far more control over their choices and consequential carbon emissions from those choices. Food transportation, in particular, accounts for only 11% of the total carbon emissions from the average U.S. household’s food behavior.
Let’s take it back to our original question: Do I have to give up meat and dairy in order to reduce my food CO2 footprint?
By taking a closer look at these two studies, you can see just how much more carbon emissions we create with our current meat and dairy diets. The vegan diet is clearly the most eco-friendly option, but that’s not the only way to follow a low-carbon diet. Not everyone has to “go vegan” overnight in order to reduce their carbon footprint and create change.
For me, I don’t eat red meat or pork – and I don’t miss it! I eat locally-sourced chicken or turkey once a week, and I always use non-dairy milk. Ice cream is still my favorite guilty pleasure, especially as the weather heats up.
The choice is yours!