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The Carbon Footprint of Meat: How Does Meat Affect the Environment?

Jane Marsh - April 9, 2021

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Diet is one of the main contributing factors to your carbon footprint. In America, we have developed a food culture that allows you to access unique products throughout the year. You can buy berries in Maine during the winter or Alaskan salmon in Tennessee at a superstore. This is because we rely on the mass production and transportation of food.

Meat poses a more significant threat to the environment, over grains and produce, due to its production and post-production practices. Both of these aspects cause meat-eaters to leave a larger carbon footprint than non-meat-eaters.

What Is a Carbon Footprint?

A carbon footprint is the measurement of one’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One can calculate their footprint by evaluating the carbon emissions that, directly or indirectly, fuel their diet and lifestyle. These emissions come from how we maintain our homes, how we travel, our diet, and more.

When we measure our carbon footprint in terms of food consumption, we mainly evaluate the fossil fuels burned in the goods’ production and transportation.

Production

The production practices of meat suppliers create over half of their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Whether you are eating farm-to-table or processed meat, the on-farm systems are nearly the same. Raising animals takes energy and resources that cause environmental degradation.

Raising livestock and fish contributes 31% to our total GHG emissions. This is because of the vast amount of feed they consume. A cow needs to eat 16 pounds of vegetation for every pound they weigh. The production of this vegetation and its transfer into food for livestock takes more energy to produce than the average meat consumer considers.

Maintaining animals’ health and living space is another feature of the production stage that contributes to the overall CO2 emissions. Factory farms typically keep their animals inside. This means that they use electricity for lights, temperature control, and automatic feeders. These farms are accountable for 7.1 gigatons of human-sourced GHG emissions.

Transportation

When the average consumer thinks of the transportation of meat to their plate, they think of farm-to-table or store-to-table. Many meat-eaters don’t consider past these two phases of the process. But moving animal products from the farm to your meal is more than a two-step process.

The carbon footprint of meat largely derives from processing and transportation. Meat begins its journey on the farm, where it is taken and delivered to a manufacturing facility. From there, the meat travels to a distributor, who then brings it to the retailer. Finally, you take the food home from the store. That is many more steps than we consider when we sit down for a chicken dinner.

Food transportation accounts for 10% to 50% of a product’s total carbon emissions. The shipping of meat contributes to a lower percentage of CO2 emissions than vegetables because it generates more significant emissions. This transportation emission impact continues to affect the GHG secretions of animal products significantly. It is evident through the evaluation of the transportation process that purchasing processed meat over locally sourced meat increases your carbon footprint.

Impact of Our Meals

Each of our meals contains its own carbon count that contributes to your overall emissions. When you purchase a meal that includes meat or packaged meat from a store, you take on that emission count.

Red meat is the largest contributor to a person’s footprint. Not because it’s the highest emitter, but because people consume it in higher quantities. A hamburger emits 3.6 to 6.1 kilograms of carbon by the time it reaches your plate. If you eat meat three times a week, this number can add up quickly.

Chicken is the lowest CO2 producer. Its GHG emissions double in the transportation phase, but its production phase emits significantly less carbon. Overall, it takes around one-fourth the carbon dioxide to make a chicken sandwich than to make a hamburger.

Lamb takes the most CO2 to produce and transport. Most of the emissions come from the production phase, but post-production emissions are still significantly higher than other forms of meat. Most Americans consume less lamb, making this a lesser contributing factor to their footprint than frequently consumed meats.

How to Lower Your GHG Emissions

If you are a meat-lover who is concerned about the size of your carbon footprint, take a breath. Lowering your carbon emissions does not mean you have to become a vegetarian. Many meat-eaters can maintain a small footprint by finding balance in their diet and reducing other CO2-fueled activities. Incorporating meatless Mondays into your diet and replacing meat with veggies and grain on this day can help lower your GHG emissions. Also, switching red beef for chicken in your favorite recipes can get that count down. Purchasing less meat and using it as a side dish rather than a main can help conserve the environment and save you money.

About the author

Jane Marsh

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.