How bad is meat consumption for the climate? – DW – 30.10.2022

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), global meat consumption has increased significantly in recent decades, with per capita consumption almost doubling since the early 1960s. In the 1960s, an average of 23.1 kilograms (50.8 pounds) of meat was consumed per person per year, but in 2019, this number rose to 43.2 kilograms. Research shows that rich countries consume more meat. Projections show that in 2022, global meat consumption per person will rise to 69.5 kilograms, but in developing countries this figure will be 27.6 kilograms.

Greenhouse gases, animal husbandry

According to FAO, livestock accounts for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, an industry that emits not only carbon dioxide (CO2), but also methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). the two gases are thought to play a similar role to CO2 in global warming. Although methane and nitrous oxide do not remain in the atmosphere as long as CO2, their climate-warming potential is about 25 times and 300 times higher than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) is usually calculated to compare the effects of different greenhouse gases.

Livestock farms are a major source of greenhouse gasesPhoto: Rupert Oberhäuser/dpa/image alliance

Most of the waste in animal husbandry is related to feed production (58%) and is released during the digestion process of animals (31%); Ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats produce large amounts of methane. Processing and transport account for a large share of greenhouse gas emissions (7%), as well as manure storage (4%). Livestock accounts for approximately 87% of methane and nitrogen oxide emissions due to the large number of animals.

These figures refer to general livestock, which means they also include areas such as dairying, cheese, gelatin and wool production. For example, a large proportion of methane emissions are due to dairy cows.

It can be concluded that about 15% of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock – almost the same as that produced by the transport sector.

Avoiding meat to slow global warming?

Examining livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions does not tell us everything about the impact of meat consumption on the climate. Thus, it is more insightful to compare the greenhouse gas emissions of plant-based and animal-based foods. A 2021 study published in Nature Food he did just that.

It turns out that plant-based foods account for only 29% of the greenhouse gases emitted by the global food industry. In contrast, 57% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions are related to the breeding and rearing of cows, pigs and other livestock, as well as feed production. A quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions in the food industry are reported to be the result of beef production alone. This is followed by rice farming, which produces more greenhouse gases than pork, poultry, lamb, mutton and dairy production.

Growing appetite for vegan products

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The study analyzes total global greenhouse gas emissions for each food product. A more nuanced picture emerges when studying the environmental impact of producing just 1 kilogram of different foods.. With 99.48 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram equivalent, beef production remains the largest source of greenhouse gases. This is almost twice as much as carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of lamb and mutton production (39.72 kilograms).

Pork and poultry production show lower carbon dioxide equivalents of 12.31 kilograms and 9.87 kilograms per kilogram of meat, respectively. Both emit less than cheese production (23.88 kilograms) and fish farming (13.63 kilograms). This means that greenhouse gas emissions vary significantly depending on the type of meat produced and consumed. For example, switching from beef to poultry consumption already results in lower greenhouse gas emissions. Today, an average of 9 kilograms of beef is consumed every day, resulting in 0.8 tons of carbon dioxide. equivalents. If Europeans and North Americans stopped eating beef, they would cut 1.2 tons and 3.3 tons of carbon dioxide, respectively. equivalents respectively.

The map shows global meat consumption

Most of the greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based foods are lower than those associated with animal-based foods. Take rice for example. Producing one kilogram of staple food results in 4.45 kilograms of carbon dioxide. equivalents — less than half of the emissions released when producing one kilogram of poultry meat. Therefore, giving up meat completely can help reduce your carbon footprint significantly. Meat consumption is associated with annual carbon dioxide the world average is equivalent to 1.1 tons. In Europe, meat accounts for an average of 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and an astonishing 4.1 carbon dioxide North American equivalents – this is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions statistically produced by a person living in India over two years and four months.

For context: to become carbon neutral by 2050, every person on the planet must reduce their emissions to 2 tons of carbon dioxide per year. equivalents or less—roughly the amount attributed to European meat eaters.

Choosing not to consume beef, lamb and mutton can provide additional benefits. These industries ultimately require 116 times the land needed to grow rice. Livestock accounts for 78% of agricultural land worldwide, according to a recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study.. However, the expansion of agriculture and grazing lands leads to habitat destruction. The use of pesticides further increases the loss of biodiversity.

The graphs show global consumption


The meat industry is responsible for a large portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. This not only causes global warming but also direct environmental pollution. People who eat a lot of meat can help fight the climate crisis by reducing or eliminating meat consumption. Even replacing beef with another meat can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What can you do?

Typical Europeans and North Americans could cut a quarter of their average annual greenhouse gas emissions if they switched to a plant-based diet. However, other areas of life are larger sources of greenhouse gases – such as the transport and aviation sectors. Driving 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) a year causes more than 2 tons of CO2 equivalent, as does a round-trip flight from Europe to New York. This number doubles when flying from Europe to Asia or South America.

This article is translated from German.

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