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Why Does Meat Have a High Carbon Footprint?

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 25 Feb 2015 | comments*Discuss
 
High Intensity Farming Climate Change

Many people cite the need to have a good, balanced diet as they tuck into meat-based meals three times each day but are we looking at ‘balance’ with rose colour glasses? Many fast food choices incorporate meat, but they are also high on fat and sugar and low on fresh fruit, vegetables and fibre. While experts in nutrition don’t suggest that we all become vegetarians or vegans overnight, they have been saying for years that a diet that includes meat, but focuses on plant-based foods is a better option that being a bit of a carnivore. Now environmentalists are agreeing with them, but for very different reasons.

How Does Meat Contribute to Climate Change

One reason is that producing meat involves high intensity farming. Pigs or beef cattle need to be fed large amounts of grain as well as grass to put on the bulk they need in a short time. To make farming profitable, a farmer has to produce animals for market more quickly and efficiently, which means using up more environmental resources in any given time. The land that is used for grazing cannot be used for growing food for people, nor can the land that is devoted to producing animal feed.

So, instead of using 10 fields to produce crops and grain to feed a hundred people for a year, those 10 fields are used to produce enough beef or lamb or pork to feed maybe a dozen people for a year.This inefficient use of the solar energy that falls on the land makes meat farming a much less environmentally friendly option. Producing meat has a relatively high carbon footprint compared to producing plant crops.

What About Methane?

The other factor that contributes to the high carbon footprint of meat is nothing to do with carbon but is connected with another, even more potent greenhouse gas. Methane is a natural bi-product of farming animals. Cows and sheep are both herbivores that eat only plant matter. As they digest cellulose, their gut bacteria produce lots of gas that is released into the atmosphere. Not an embarrassment for animals but the amount of methane that is produced by the animals we farm is significant. As well as being produced by windy animals, methane is also released by their manure as it decomposes on the land.

How Would Cutting Down on Meat Help?

Some interesting statistics have been published recently that show greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by about 10% if we just changed our eating habits slightly. Instead of eating as much meat as we feel like, if we at only 70g of beef and 325g of chicken or eggs in a week, this would leave around 15 million square kilometres of land spare to grow plant based foods. As the plants grew, they would at as a carbon sink and could slash by 50% what we are planning to spend globally in combating climate change in the next 40 years.Some environmentalists are calling for the carbon footprint of all meat sold in the UK to be shown on the label and some even think that high carbon footprint meat should attract an environmental tax. In the same way that motorists are being made to pay for the impact of their car on the environment, heavy meat eaters would be made to pay for the effect of their diet choices.

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