How much damage is eating red meat doing to the environment?

·4-min read
Beautifully decorated catering vegetarian banquet table with variety of vegetables and vegan snacks and vegetable smoothies
Is vegetarianism really better for the environment? (Getty)

Eating large amounts of meat (and in particular beef) is bad for the environment, and many people are looking at alternative diets to reduce their impact on climate change

Quantifying the benefits of switching away from meat consumption is complicated: for example, a 2019 Johns Hopkins study suggested that reducing animal foods in general was likely to be more climate-friendly than eliminating meat altogether.

Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN statistics.

A recent study by the Lancet revealed that daily meat consumption in the UK has fallen by almost a fifth over the last decade – though it also showed Britons were actually eating 3.2g more white meat per day.

Watch: Singapore approves sale of lab-grown meat first

But switching to plant-based foods can cause its own problems, says Georgina Wilson-Powell, editor of UK-based Pebble Magazine

Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly right

"If you're going to swap your locally-sourced organic chicken, for example, for avocados that are grown in Mexico which are fuelling deforestation, and which are quite heavy on the carbon emissions from being flown and stored in freezing warehouses in the UK, it's not an easy swap," she says.

"Almonds are another huge problem. A lot of people want to move away from dairy and move to this milk, which has been pushed as a really healthy alternative. 

"This causes a huge problem in California, where all the almond farms are helping to worsen the California drought."

Mashed avocado on toasted multigrain bread served on wooden cutting board, closeup view
Foods like avocados have their own issues. (Getty)

Although the Almond Board of California has insisted that claims over how much water almonds use compared to other crops "has been filled with misinformation and bad facts", it's doubtless the case that the more crops are planted, the more water is required to feed them.

"Trendy" foods often cause problems, Wilson-Powell says. 

"There’s a massive carbon footprint problem with a lot of vegan superfoods," she says. 

"When large numbers of people swap to one particular ingredient, it tends to cause a lot of problems in the region where it originates."

It’s clear, however, that meat and dairy pose huge problems for the environment.

The "Meat Atlas" report suggested that 20 large livestock companies emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, the UK or France.

Read more: Why economists worry that reversing climate change is hopeless

Producing a serving of beef emits 316 times more greenhouse gases than pulses, 115 times more than nuts, and 40 times more than soy, the Johns Hopkins research found. 

Wilson-Powell says: "Meat or dairy production uses up 77% of all agricultural land. A lot of that land is used for feed for animals, so it’s not just a case of looking at the impact of the animals themselves. 

"You have to look further back in that supply chain, looking at what there's animals being fed and how much land that actually uses. 

"There is also a huge reliance on soy, and a problem with palm oil because a lot of that debt goes into animal feed, rather than for human consumption. 

"Animal farming has a hugely destructive role on the planet."

A giant piece of Ice breaks off the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina
If people stick to meat-heavy diets, it could have devastating effects on the battle against climate change. (Getty)

A 2019 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended that people in Western countries eat less meat to prevent deforestation and climate change. 

By 2050, the world will need to produce 56% more food than in 2010, to feed a predicted 9.8 billion people. 

If the level of meat and dairy consumption rises in line with current trends, 2.3 million square miles of forest will need to be converted for agriculture – clashing with land required for forests to help the world to hit climate targets. 

But labelling people as "vegan" or "vegetarian" isn’t always helpful, says Wilson-Powell, who adopts a "flexitarian" approach herself. 

"For some people," she says, "it might feel like veganism is going too far, so I think reducing meat and fish as well as consumption and replacing what you can with plants is a great way to break down your carbon footprint."

Wilson-Powell recommends taking an overview, and thinking about how far your food has to travel as well as its carbon impact – and eating locally and in season where possible.

"There’s so much information out there, blogs, recipes, and calendars and what fruit and vegetables should be in season each month," she says. 

"Buying in season tends to be cheaper, so it can help to bring the bills down. And when you think about it, eating strawberries at Christmas doesn’t really make much sense!"

Watch: Which countries release the most CO2?

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