Eat Less Meat to Go Green

US - Delegates at the prestigious meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have heard that we could cut our carbon footprint by eating more poultry and pork, and less beef - or better still, reduce our intake of all meats.
calendar icon 17 February 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

The livestock sector is estimated to account for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When it comes to global warming, hamburgers are the Hummers of food, scientists said at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, reports Straits Times.

Simply switching from steak to salad could cut as much carbon as leaving the car at home a couple days a week.

That is because beef is such an incredibly inefficient food to produce and cows release so much harmful methane into the atmosphere, said Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Canada.

Dr Pelletier is one of a growing number of scientists studying the environmental costs of food from field to plate.

By looking at everything from how much grain a cow eats before it is ready for slaughter to the emissions released by manure, they are getting a clearer idea of the true costs of food. The livestock sector is estimated to account for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and beef is the biggest culprit.

Even though beef only accounts for 30 per cent of meat consumption in the developed world, it is responsible for 78 per cent of the emissions, Dr Pelletier said on 15 February at the AAAS meeting.

A single kilogram of beef produces 16 kg carbon dioxide equivalent emissions: four times higher than pork and more than ten times as much as a kilogram of poultry, Mr Pelletier said.

If people were to simply switch from beef to chicken, emissions would be cut by 70 per cent, Dr Pelletier added.

People eating more meat than they need

Another part of the problem is people are eating far more meat than they need to, according to Straits Times.

"Meat once was a luxury in our diet," Dr Pelletier said. "We used to eat it once a week. Now we eat it every day." If meat consumption in the developed world was cut from the current level of about 90 kg a year to the recommended level of 53 kg a year, livestock related emissions would fall by 44 per cent.

"Given the projected doubling of (global) meat production by 2050, we're going to have to cut our emissions by half just to maintain current levels," Dr Pelletier said.

"Technical improvements are not going to get us there." That is why changing the kinds of food people eat is so important, said Chris Weber, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

Food is the third largest contributor to the average US household's carbon footprint after driving and utilities, and in Europe - where people drive less and have smaller homes - it has an even greater impact.

"Food is of particular importance to a consumer's impact because it's a daily choice that is, at least in theory, easy to change," Professor Weber said.

"You make your choice every day about what to eat but once you have a house and a car, you're locked into that for a while." The average US household contributes about five tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by driving and about 3.5 tonnes of equivalent emissions with what they eat, he said.

"Switching to no red meat and no dairy products is the equivalent of (cutting out) 8,100 miles driven in a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon," Professor Weber said in an interview later.

Buying local meat and produce will not have nearly the same effect, he cautioned, because only five per cent of the emissions related to food come from transporting food to market.

"You can have a much bigger impact by shifting just one day a week from meat and dairy to anything else than going local every day of the year," Professor Weber told Straits Times.

Further Reading

- You can calculate the carbon emissions of your meal on the web site of Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation by clicking here.
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