Which meat has the least environmental impact

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Eating less meat and dairy products is the most effective way to reduce the negative impact of food production on the environment, according to a new study published June 1 in Science magazine. Animal products only cover 18% of the calorie and 37% of the protein supply, while their production occupies 83% of the agricultural land and generates 60% of the greenhouse gases. But not all steaks are the same and not all tomatoes are the same, because the environmental footprint of one and the same food can vary greatly depending on the production conditions, the place of manufacture and the type of packaging. For their comprehensive life cycle assessment, Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford and Thomas Nemecek from the Swiss research institute Agroscope carried out a meta-analysis of the environmental impacts of 40 foods in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, fresh water consumption, overfertilization of bodies of water and air pollution (acidification). They compared different production systems: The data collection includes 38,700 companies and 1,600 processors, packaging types and trading companies from all over the world.

The evaluation clearly shows that beef, milk or beer cannot be lumped together: "Depending on the producer, the effects of the same product can be fifty-fold, which creates considerable savings," says the abstract of the study. Take beer, for example: just growing barley for a large glass can cause three times as much CO2 and occupy four times as much land area as any other beer. The difference becomes even greater when packaging and disposal are included. While beer from refillable kegs has around 20 grams of carbon dioxide per liter, one liter of beer from returnable bottles has 750 grams of carbon dioxide per bottle. If this is not recycled, the CO2 balance increases to 2.5 kilos, quoted the ORF. There are also huge differences when it comes to beef: the most polluting variant comes to 105 kilos of CO2 equivalents and devours 370m² of land per 100 grams of protein and thus causes 12 times as many emissions and requires 50 times as much land as beef from the best possible production method, namely from herds of dairy cows grazing on pastures. "Two things that look the same in business can have extremely different effects on the planet," says lead author Joseph Poore. “Right now we don't know when we choose what to eat. In addition, this difference is not reflected in strategies and policies aimed at reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. "

However, one thing is easy to get to the point: Vegetable products are better for the environment, because even the animal products produced with the least environmental impact usually pollute the planet more than vegetable substitutes. For example, the CO2 emissions of beef from pasture rearing by the top producer in the top tenth, with 9.1kg CO2eq per 100 grams of protein, are around 36 times higher than comparable pea producers with 0.25 kg CO2eq. And even compared to 100 grams of peas with the worst environmental footprint, this beef caused eleven times the amount of emissions. In addition, the most environmentally friendly produced beef, with 7.3m², occupied six times more land than comparably produced peas with 1.2m². Cow milk produced in the most environmentally friendly way possible (top tenth) still required almost twice the land area and twice the amount of greenhouse gas compared to the average soy milk.

"Switching the current diet to a diet without animal products has huge transformation potential and could reduce land use for food production by 3.1 billion hectares (76%), including a 19% savings in arable land," the authors write. "That would reduce the pressure on the earth's rainforests and free land again for nature," said Poore. A plant-based diet would also reduce emissions by 6.6 billion tons of CO2eq (a reduction of 49%), acidification by 50%, eutrophication by 49% and freshwater abstraction by 19%. ”But not all people are vegans are: "A compromise that is very beneficial for the environment would therefore be to forego half of the current consumption of animal products worldwide and instead stop using particularly environmentally harmful production processes for meat, fish and dairy products," says Nemecek of the NZZ. This alone would achieve 73% of the CO2 savings that a switch to a worldwide vegan diet would bring.

But such a change does not happen by itself. “We have to find ways to change the conditions so that it pays off for producers and consumers to be environmentally friendly. "Ecolabels and financial incentives would support more sustainable consumption and thus have a positive signal effect: farmers would have to monitor their environmental impact and would thus make better decisions," emphasizes Poore. In addition, products that are particularly environmentally harmful could be burdened with taxes and environmentally friendly food could be relieved in order to make it easier for consumers to decide in the supermarket. (from)