Meat Footprint Calculator
- Meat consumption on a big scale
- Meat footprint: Greenhouse gas emissions
- Meat footprint: Water
- Meat footprint: Land use
- Meat footprint: Water, air and land pollution
- Beef - the biggest polluter
- The studies behind calculator - environmental part
- Health benefits of reducing meat intake
- New diet trends: planetary health diet and flexitarian diet
- Health section of meat footprint calculator
- Take home message
- References, data sources:
Meat production has an enormous environmental impact on our planet. Did you know that animal agriculture is the second largest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions? While carbon dioxide production and water consumption come to our minds first, there are other things that we don't really think about - the amount of land needed, or the pollution of the air, water and land. There is also the feed the animals need, which could be used more productively.
Have you ever wondered what resources are needed to produce your steak or the meat for your BBQ? How many miles should you walk instead of drive to offset your carnivorous habits? Our meat footprint calculator is here to answer those questions, and to help you learn about the true cost of meat🍗.
Don't worry, we don't want to convince you to become vegan, simply to reduce the amount of meat in your diet. Just have a look at the numbers, read about the environmental cost, and have a think: "Is reducing my meat consumption - even by just one steak or a few chicken nuggets per week - such a big sacrifice?" Maybe a flexitarian or planetary health diet is worth trying? Remember that reducing this is a way to help not only the climate and environment, but also your health!
Meat consumption on a big scale
Meat consumption has recently soared, as more countries begin to develop and global society is getting richer. In the last 50 years, the amount of meat eaten globally quadrupled, exceeding 320 million tonnes per year! Unfortunately, meat is very inefficient food if you take into account the resources needed for production and the amount of protein obtained. Needless to say, meat production creates pressure on crop and water resources, not to mention the huge demand for land leading to biodiversity loss. Do you know that 60% of the world's mammals are livestock, and only 4% are wild?
Meat footprint: Greenhouse gas emissions
Animal agriculture is the second biggest source of anthropomorphic greenhouse gas emissions, being responsible for about 13-18% of emissions worldwide (~64% comes from the primary contributor to global warming: the energy and transportation sector). The most significant greenhouse gas associated with meat production is methane. Meat production is the single most important source of this greenhouse gas - livestock produces around 35–40% of the global methane emissions.
Also, vast amounts of other greenhouse gases are emitted during meat production, mainly carbon dioxide, CO₂, and nitrous oxide, N₂O. Even though we hear a lot about CO₂, nitrous oxide has much greater potential for global warming than carbon dioxide (almost 300 times more), as well as depleting the ozone layer.
That was some facts and numbers. Pretty overwhelming. But what can we do about that? What personal action can we undertake to reduce our carbon footprint, at a personal level scale? According to a study from 2019, the three things which can help you reduce your carbon footprint are (in order of effectiveness):
- 🍗 No more meat consumption (790 CO₂ kg/year)
- 🌡️ Modern heating and insulation (770 CO₂ kg/year)
- ✈️ One flight less per year (680 CO₂ kg/year)
Interestingly, banning plastic bags has the smallest impact on carbon footprint reduction out of the seven actions mentioned in a survey, at only a 3 kg reduction (don't forget about all of the plastic in the ocean, though). The authors also checked what people think reduces their footprint the most. And here comes the most mind-blowing conclusion - people usually believe that giving up on plastic bags is the most important thing!
The results are even more interesting when we look at the nationality of the responders:
Have you noticed that Americans tend to underestimate the influence of flight reduction? The author of the study is convinced that "the majority of the effect is driven by lack of knowledge". We hope so too. We hope that it's not our laziness and simple desire for convenience. So now, after reading this article, you shouldn't have any excuses.
Meat footprint: Water
Many researchers are warning that water shortages may lead to the next global conflict and great migration of people. There are estimates that over ⅔ of freshwater withdrawals go to irrigation for agriculture, and ~90% of global water is used to grow food. Meat production is a great contributor, making up a significant amount of water from these percentages.
Beef production needs the most water - it requires over 4 000 gallons (15,000 liters) of water to produce 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of meat, making it the most water-intensive protein! Lamb is a bit less greedy (over 2700 gallons/10,400 liters), and poultry production takes 1100 gal (4300 l) per kilo of meat. That's rather a lot, especially when compared to what we drink on a daily basis.
Meat footprint: Land use
In today's world, agriculture takes up around 50% of the global habitable land (all of Earth's land, excluding deserts and ice-covered regions). From that, approximately 80% is associated with animal agriculture, mostly meat production. To give you some numbers, on average, beef production requires ~22 times more land than pea production1. If the cattle are instead a dairy herd, then "only" 6 times more farmland is used for the same amount of protein from peas.
Differences in dietary habits are immense - if every person in the world had the UK's meat consumption and average diet, 95% of global habitable area would be needed for agriculture. Even more terrifying results appear if the whole world chooses the US's average diet - 138% of the global habitable area would be needed! Unfortunately, we can't do it - we don't have a spare planet.
On the other hand, if everybody changed to a vegan diet, land use could be reduced by more than 75%!1. With the human population growing rapidly, we'll need more and more land for living, but also for food production...
Do we still need to convince you that the change in our lifestyle and diet is inevitable?
Meat footprint: Water, air and land pollution
Meat production not only produces greenhouse gases, it also produces a lot of different byproducts, but we will only mention ammonia and particulate matter. They can be dangerous to our health and may lead to respiratory problems, as well as leading to the deterioration of water, air, and land. So how does meat production lead to pollution?
- Water pollution
Eutrophication is the over-enrichment of nutrients in a system, mostly by nitrogen or phosphorus (phosphate ions). It causes algae blooms, which can be toxic to animals and people, but also very harmful to the ecosystem (dead zones, fish deaths, decrease in biodiversity, new species invasion). Have you ever heard that food production is responsible for ~78% of global eutrophication? That's an unbelievably high percentage! In the livestock and agricultural sector, the nutrients come from animal manure, fertilisers (as approximately one-third of the world's grain is fed to animals), leftover feed, and crop residues. Meat production contributes to a significant part of agricultural eutrophication - for example, red meat production has an environmental impact 10 to 100 times larger than a plant source food.
- Air and land pollution
Ammonia coming from manure is the dominant source of acidifying emissions during livestock production. Overall, the livestock industry is responsible for ~64% of the total ammonia emissions, contributing significantly to acid rains and ecosystem acidification.
Beef - the biggest polluter
If you're a meat-eater, who can't imagine life without steak or chicken, you don't have to go the whole hog. Just eat more greens, or at least care more about what type of meat you're eating - try to avoid highly-processed meat 🍔 and red meat 🥩 when possible, and remember that the beef meat is the greatest Resource Reaper.
The USA is the biggest beef producer worldwide, and also one of the top countries when it comes to beef consumption per person. Let's try to change it!
The studies behind calculator - environmental part
The environmental part of our meat footprint calculator is based mostly on a Science study from 2018. The authors checked over 1,500 studies on life cycle assessments around the world, finally choosing over 1/3 of them that meet the imposed criteria and methodology. They consolidated data from over 38,000 farms in almost 120 countries. On that basis, different environmental footprints were estimated, including, e.g., greenhouse gases, acidification, eutrophying emissions, and land use. As expected, the authors found out that the ecological footprint is highly variable, as it depends on the whole food production chain: methods, location, transport process, retail and consumer actions, and many many more factors.
To make this tool, we've chosen five popular meat types: chicken/poultry, beef, pork, lamb, and fish. The Science study provided data for the protein content and four environmental factors: carbon dioxide equivalent, land use, water pollution, and air pollution. We then took the mean values from each of the footprints and recalculated them into values per weight of the meat. Then, to estimate the water footprint, we used data from A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. , while to assess the required animal feed, we used Human appropriation of land for food: The role of diet . In most cases, fish were not included in the studies so we took the data from other sources, which you'll find in our references section.
One of the significant results of the Science study is the fact that even the lowest-impact animal product exceed the the impact of the average vegetable substitute, usually by many times. This should lead to the conclusion that even a small diet change is really beneficial for the environment. But let's have a look a bit more selfishly - what are the health benefits of reducing meat consumption?
Health benefits of reducing meat intake
Not only the environment will thank you for reducing your meat intake – you can also thank yourself. Over the last years, meat has been moving upwards in the food pyramid, which means it becomes more of an occasional food than a basis of daily nutrition. There is a wide range of reasons behind that.
We see that every month a new food product is demonised, that it is deadly, causes cancer, and should be banned. But facts are facts – high meat intake is linked to a greater risk of bowel cancer and premature death. It applies especially to red meat – pork, beef, lamb, especially in their processed forms (processed meats include hot dogs, ham, canned meat, pâtés etc.).
All the significant world health associations - WHO, the NHS, the Australian Cancer Council, and the Canada Food Guide all agree that meat consumption should be reduced in order to lead a healthier lifestyle. There are no strict safe limits here, but general good practice is to eat no more than one portion (70-100 g or 2.5-3.5 oz, uncooked weight) per day or two portions (about 200 g or 7 oz) 3-4 times a week. The lower weight of one portion, 70 g, is recommended if you would like to minimize the risk associated with meat-eating. As for processed meat - you should keep it to an absolute minimum or just zero.
New diet trends: planetary health diet and flexitarian diet
If you don't feel like becoming a vegan today, we've got some good news for you - it's not necessary! Currently, most recommendations focus on implementing small changes that, when multiplied, add up to a big difference - for individual health and for the planet! The diet that meets both conditions is called a planetary health diet.
The planetary health diet was introduced in 2019, and supported by the report Food | Planet | Health by the EAT-Lancet Commission from The Lancet - the world's leading scientific medical journal. Thirty-seven experts on health, nutrition, and environmental sustainability agree that food is the single strongest lever to act on both planetary and individual human health.
Half of the planetary health plate consists of vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The other half consists of whole grains, plant proteins like legumes, plant oils, and only then animal-derived foods, like dairy and meat. Sugar is at the very bottom.
Various diets can meet the criteria of the planetary health diet - vegetarianism, pesco-vegetarianism, veganism. An easy to adopt alternative seems to be the flexitarian diet. This type of diet assumes an increased intake of fruits and vegetables but allows an occasional meat meal. The flexitarian diet brings a lot of hope for improving human and planetary health - every increase in vegetable intake is valuable, and the possibility of eating meat from time to time is remarkably soothing for many of us.
Health section of meat footprint calculator
In the health section of the calculator, you can see how changing your meat intake will affect certain health-indicators. Both saturated fatty acids and sodium can **seriously contribute to cardio-vascular diseases - stroke, myocardial infarction, and hypertension development. Saturated fats are particularly egregious, since the recommendations say that you should preferably not eat them at all. Still, many people around the world eat them daily in the form of meat, processed foods, and sweets.
There are some clear advantages of eating more vegetables, fruit, and whole grains (vitamins, microelements, fiber). But, if you drop your meat intake, you'll probably reach out for legumes, pulses, and nuts to make sure you eat enough protein. And this is beneficial for your health!
- Legumes, especially soybeans, are known to lower the risk of diabetes - probably because they help you to reach a healthy body weight.
- They help with favorable changes in your blood lipids.
- Higher intake of pulses lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases (like stroke or myocardial infarction) and reduces overall mortality.
- Eating just half of a can (100g) of legumes 4x a week results in a reduction in the risk of ischaemic heart disease by 14%.
Doesn't it all sound convincing?
Take home message
According to the newest research, the health benefits of diet change go hand-in-hand with a reduced environmental footprint - that means the products associated with health improvement (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains) usually have a low impact on the environment. It sounds like a win-win situation!
As a take-home message, let us paraphrase the slogan from a zero-waste chef:
We don't need a handful of people performing meat reduction perfectly, by changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly, reducing meat consumption as much as possible.
References, data sources:
- Carbon footprint, land use, water pollution, air pollution, proteins/kg: Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers
- Water footprint: A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products
- Fish water footprint: Increasing pressure on freshwater resources due to terrestrial feed ingredients for aquaculture production
- Animal Feed: Human appropriation of land for food: The role of diet
- Fish feed: The Feed Conversion Ratio and Other Performance Indicators in Farmed Fish (approximate)
- CO2 tree absorption
- CO2 equivalents- phones charged, gasoline consumed, distance driven by car: EPA Greenhouse Gases Equivalencies
If there is no reference for a piece of ecological data, the Science article is most likely the source.