Is eating red meat sustainable?

Understanding the effects of our Diets

Before moving to the UK, I had never really asked myself whether my diet was sustainable. I had always tried to eat healthy, but for personal reasons. However, upon learning that different types of food were linked to different volumes of carbon footprints, I realised that my eating habits were having a direct impact on climate change."Fruits and Vegetables laid out on a table" by USDA is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How carbon-rich is your diet?

A study done by Shrink That Footprint compared the 5 following types of diets: Meat Lovers, Average, No Beef, Vegetarian and Vegan. The end result was a comparison of the carbon emissions associated with each type of diet. As expected, the Meat Lover’s diet was associated with the biggest amount of carbon emission, while the Vegan diet emitted only half as much.

Foodprints by Diet Type (Source: Shrink That Footprint)

Perhaps the most interesting fact about this study was the notorious amount of carbon emissions associated with the consumption of Beef and Lamb. A recent study has shown that a diet high in red meat causes double the amount of carbon emissions than a vegetarian diet. Another study has come to the conclusion that switching at least one day per week from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs or a vegetarian diet can achieve more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

The impact of our decisions

As I read about this, it became clear that I should reduce my red-meat and dairy consumption. Other practices, such as buying local produce and reducing food waste also became evident. However, I was still struggling to understand the impact of this decision on a bigger scale.

To make it more graspable, I decided to estimate the amount of carbon that would not be emitted if the entire UK population were to switch from an Average diet to a No-beef diet. To simplify this exercise, I assumed that the whole UK population had an average eating habit. It was also more plausible to assume that society was more willing to change to a no-beef diet rather than to a vegetarian one. The carbon emissions data that was used was from the study done by Shrink That Footprint.

I came to the conclusion that if the entire UK population where to switch from an average diet to a no-beef one we could prevent the emission of 14,037.9 million tons of CO2 per year.

From food to forests

However, I was still wondering how to make this number more relatable. To mitigate the effects of CO2 emissions, the concepts of carbon sequestration forests and carbon stocks have been developed. With this in mind, I decided to roughly estimate how much of an Amazon rainforest used towards carbon sequestration would the UK need to mitigate the impact of its population’s diet if they should choose to not switch to a non-beef diet.

Tropical forest in Loreto, Peru
Tropical forest in Loreto, Peru (Image by D. Requena Suarez)

The carbon sequestration data of a tropical ecosystem was based on this FAO study. Assuming a high carbon-sequestration rate and a uniformity that cannot be found in tropical forests, the amount of tropical forest needed would be of roughly 12 million hectares per year. That’s right, 12 million hectares, which is almost half the size of the UK!

In summary, if the UK population decided to not cut their beef consumption, 12 million hectares would have to be set aside for carbon sequestration in a tropical forest per year. It is astonishing that the CO2 emissions associated with beef and lamb consumption can have such an overwhelming impact on the environment.

It would be naïve not to mention the direct impact that beef has on tropical forests through deforestation. Through habitat conversion, extensive cattle ranching is the primary cause for deforestation in most Amazon countries.

Extensive cattle ranching in Peru (Image by D. Requena Suarez)
Extensive cattle ranching in Peru (Image by D. Requena Suarez)

Thinking ahead

Of course, it is evident that using carbon sequestration forest to mitigate the impact of emissions by unsustainable diets is not the way to go. Not only because such practices would not address the main problem, but also because governments are not willing to acknowledge the urgency to reduce carbon emission associated with food consumption.

Fortunately, here are some things that we can change in our everyday diets that can contribute to reduce the carbon emission associated with food systems, such as reducing beef and milk consumption, eating local and seasonal produce, and reducing waste to a minimum. As part of a society, we can also advocate for the integration of a sustainable food policy into the government agenda.

A further explanation on what we can do to make our diets more sustainable en eco-friendly can be found in the LiveWell for Life Program developed by WWF and Friends of Europe.

Finally, and on a much more personal note, I am certain that after today I won’t look at a steak the same way I did before.

Author’s note: Even though the numerical exercise presented in this post was based on verifiable sources, many assumptions had to be made. Therefore, the results shown should only be considered as rough approximations. 


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