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Blog Post 30 August 2022 Updated 1 September 2022

How eating less meat can reduce our carbon emissions

Did you know that food production is responsible for approximately one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions?  

A large chunk of this comes from food waste, while about a third comes from livestock and fisheries.   

One way you can reduce your climate impact is by eating with the environment in mind. This is because the production of certain types of food releases larger amounts of harmful emissions than others.   

What foods are better for the environment?

Studies have shown that the environmental impact of different foods varies considerably. The production of animal-based foods, for example, tend to be more harmful to the environment than that of plant-based foods. 

This is because land-use change and processes used in farming make up much of the carbon footprint of most foods. Animal-based foods tend to score considerably higher in these two areas than plant-based foods.

For example, grazing animals require a lot of land, often created through deforestation. Livestock also produce large quantities of methane, a particularly harmful greenhouse gas.   

Meanwhile, foods like tofu, beans, peas and nuts have a very low overall carbon footprint, making them environmentally friendly choices.



Is all meat bad for the environment?

While animal-based foods generally have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods, some animal-based foods are more environmentally friendly than others.  

Chicken and pork have a relatively small climate impact. Dairy and lamb sit in the middle, while beef is nearly always the least sustainable choice. 

The environmental impact of beef varies from country to country due to differences in farming practices. For example, beef from South America is often worse for the environment due to deforestation from land-use change. Beef from New Zealand, France and the UK is usually more environmentally friendly due to good pasture quality, a result of climate and effective management practices.  

Should we eat less meat?

Evidence suggests that less meat is nearly always better than more sustainable meat. If you compared the protein content of beef and peas, for example, beef would produce roughly 90% times more Earth-warming emissions.  

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, about 14% of all emissions come from meat and dairy production. Simply reducing our intake of these two foods can make a big impact. 

One easy way to reduce your consumption of high impact animal-based products is to reduce your portion sizes. Some chicken breasts are two to three times bigger than the recommended serving size!  

To cut back on meat portions even further, try mixing higher impact proteins with low impact proteins, for example by adding beans to stews or soups and halving the meat content. This is also a great way to save money, as legumes like beans are cheap to buy in comparison to meat.  

What about fish?

Fishing is a major contributor to the decline in the number of ocean wildlife. In just five years, the number of overfished stocks globally has tripled. The destruction of ocean habitats and pollution are also major issues related to fishing.  

But this doesn’t mean that all fish is off the table. Just make sure to pick your fish wisely, and eat a variety of protein sources to avoid putting too much pressure on the oceans.  

Choosing fish that have a low environmental impact can be tricky, as you need to consider things like the species of fish, where it is fished, and how it is fished.  

Luckily, the Marine Conservation Society’s tool, The Good Fish Guide, considers all these factors for you. It will provide you with a traffic light ranking, with green being good and red being bad, for different fishing locations. It also offers more sustainable alternatives to try for each fish species.   

What are the benefits of eating less meat?

Eating less red and processed meat and more wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and legumes has also been shown to be good for your health. Studies show that eating in this way not only benefits the planet but also reduces your risk of health conditions like heart disease, strokes and diabetes.  

You don’t need to go completely vegetarian to reap the benefits. For example, the Mediterranean diet involves basing your diet around plant-based foods and having animal-based foods less frequently. It’s considered one of the healthiest ways to eat and is even prescribed by consultants to treat medical conditions.  

What if everyone stopped eating meat?

Livestock farming is not all bad. It provides a source of income for many people and is an important source of nutrition in low-income communities. Some people have dietary requirements or health conditions that limit their diets and may rely on animal-based foods.  

Luckily, simply being mindful of your consumption of food with a higher carbon footprint can make a big difference. 

Key takeaways:

  • Plant-based protein sources like tofu, beans, peas and nuts have the lowest climate impact. 
  • Chicken, eggs and pork are almost always more environmentally friendly than dairy, beef and lamb. 

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Last updated: 1 September 2022