Cutting down on meat and dairy

Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Avoid foods from animals that burp

A vegan in a 4x4 can do the climate more good than a meat-eater driving a hybrid car. Food for thought?

Livestock produce more greenhouse gases than all the world's transport combined, with beef production singled out by a recent UN report as a particular enemy at the gate. Why? Because cattle belch. Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 20 times worse for climate change than CO2emissions and cattle are full of it. There are 1.5 billion cattle and buffalo worldwide, each producing more greenhouse gas in a day than the average 4x4.

According to the World Health Organisation, the average Briton eats twice the amount of protein they need in a year. By halving the amount of beef you eat, you could save almost as much CO2 as recycling for a year. By going vegan, you can slice off almost as much CO2 in a year as skipping a single return flight to India.

And cows, sheep, pigs and chickens are responsible for more emissions than just their... well, emissions. So, should we be choosing our meats more carefully?

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It's Not Easy Being Green: eating less beef

Presenter Lauren Laverne explains why she's vegetarian during an interview about her eco-footprint

In this article:

How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • Producing a kilo of beef can emit as much CO2 as the average British car driven about 160 miles
  • All in all, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that a third of the entire land surface of the globe is dedicated to livestock production
  • It takes a staggering 1,000 litres of water to make a single litre of milk, according to the FAO report Livestock's Long Shadow
  • Livestock products provide one third of the world's protein intake
  • Meat consumption is predicted to more than double between 1999 and 2050
  • Vegetarians are 25% less likely to die from heart disease than omnivores
  • 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from meat
  • Average EU cheese consumption is about 20kg per person; Brits eat half that
  • The average Brit eats twice as much protein as recommended by the World Health Organisation, and 50% more saturated fat than is recommended
  • A beef calf produces about 5 tonnes of CO2-equivalent throughout its life cycle

Together, belched methane from cows and sheep, plus methane from manure, account for about 40% of global methane emissions. But that's not the whole story.

Livestock production also plays a big part in deforestation for grazing and cultivating animal feeds such as soya. Deforestation is currently responsible for a staggering quarter of all global man-made CO2 emissions.

Add to that the fact that manure and fertilisers used to grow crops to feed livestock produce two-thirds of global human emissions of nitrous oxide (a gas almost 300 times as damaging to the climate as CO2 ) and you start to see the scale of the problem.

When you crunch those numbers, a single kilo of beef can be responsible for more greenhouse gas than driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home, according to 2007 Japanese research published in the journal Animal Science.

Cows can even offer vegetarians something to ruminate on - a veggie who scoffs a lot of dairy products can actually be as bad for the climate as a meat-eater. That's because the dairy industry accounts for about 23% of UK food emissions.

If the UK went the whole hog and stopped eating meat and dairy entirely, without increasing how much we eat of other foods, we would cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 8%. While this may be an unikely scenario, even eating a bit less could lower demand and reduce emissions significantly.

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What's the debate?

What about animal welfare?

'Climate-efficiency' in the meat industry might conflict with animal welfare. For example, intensively farmed chicken has the lowest climate impact of all meats, but sales of free-range poultry rose 16% between 2005 and 2006. If battery farming and climate change cause you concern, eating less but better-quality meat may be preferable.

What about organics?

The jury's out on whether organic meat and dairy are beneficial to the climate. Critics say that any benefits to the climate from cutting out fertilisers could be swallowed up by the increased use of land. Read this DEFRA report for more information on recent research.

There must be some efficiencies?

In their favour, cows and sheep can graze on non-arable land - so they don't waste space that could be used to produce crops - and produce useful side-products such as leather and fertiliser.

Livestock farming isn't solely responsible for deforestation, is it?

No. Farming for biofuels and soya (much of which ends up in animal feeds) also contribute to deforestation.

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What's stopping me?

"I don't want to put the farmers out of business"

Beset by foot and mouth outbreaks and export bans in recent years, UK beef producers are unlikely to react kindly to a massive drop in demand. The science is clear, however, that eating beef and dairy (along with prawns) is extremely carbon-intensive.

In due course, science may come to the rescue. Methane is created in cows' stomachs by microbes digesting food. Introducing different bacteria (such as those found in kangaroos' stomachs) and altering cows' diets (according to The Times) are two ways scientists are approaching the problem. Another alternative is to grow meat in laboratories from stem cells. If that puts you off your steak, and until these innovations are deemed safe, eating less meat could be the best answer.

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How do I do it?

  • Eat more chicken and pork - meats with the lowest climate impact because they come from animals that don't burp methane, research suggests
  • Eat local meat if possible to avoid emissions from transport
  • Consider soya as an alternative to dairy
  • Consider farting less yourself

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Comments

HennyPenny 2009-11-11

Should mention extensive grazing causes less methane production, and it's good for the biodiversity of species rich pastures that are no use for other types of food production. While eating less meat generally, meat eaters could help matters by increasing their consumption of extensively grazed animals that are kept outdoors all year round.

ClovenSkull 2009-10-29

this wasn't too hard for me as I've been a vegetarian for 3 years already, I'm a lacto-ovo vegetarian but I decided to cut out the eggs for this challenge.

Laurra, North West! (Y) 2009-06-26

I've Been Vegetarian ALL My Life Muhahahaha! :DD

Ben, Antwerpen, Belgium 2009-04-18

I decided to not eat meat or fish anymore by my own choice

Anonymous 2009-04-05

Never really liked the taste of meat, so that was easy.. now I have to cut down on dairy. :P

Hannah 2009-03-07

I'm a vegan and even though it seems hard to do, it's actually very easy and I don't miss anything.

Erin Hope, Crowthorne 2009-02-11

I have been a vegetarian for 5 years now and I do not miss meat at all! My family grow so many different veg and its so easy and so much fun! I have also lowered my dairy intake and drink alot more soya milk then what I used to! I have also inspired many of my friends to turn veggie to!!

Kate 2009-02-04

I have always been a veggie! Never eaten meat. I have been growing my own veg for 3 years now and its great. You cant top pulling your own purple carrots and parsnips up on Christmas Day to cook for the meal! The variety of potatoes you can grow are great too and believe me they are so easy to grow. I grow them in old compost bags. I have given up on brassicas though! We have too many slugs and cabbage white butterflies and the frogs and toads in our garden seem to be veggie too!!!!

Kelly, Bedfordshire 2009-01-26

I am already a Vegetarian and have been for three years. With the amount of vegetarian and Vegan foods in the local supermarkets and local shops it is an easy lifestyle. It is also an easy way to happy your local farmers and community shops if you do not want to use the supermarkets.
Why did not you try to grow your own veggies in your gardens or alotments. Any green area will do. Easy and it saves you money.
Last year we grew carrots and all the people who tried them said that they tasted alot better then the shop brought carrots.
It is also a use of the old yoghurt pots that you can not recycle in most communities.

The Bloom Team, London 2008-11-24

Most research suggests that grass-fed cattle emit more greenhouse gas than conventional cattle.

Grass may be a natural, low-carbon alternative to grain feed, but it makes cattle emit more methane because it is difficult to digest. The emissions climb when you consider that grass is often heavily-fertilized. Of course, this research doesn’t take into account the damage done by intensively-farmed ranches to rainforests.

Chicken is far less greenhouse gas-intensive than beef per kilo, regardless of how much of it we eat. Chickens are much more efficient at converting energy to meat protein than cattle because they don’t waste energy as methane. However, chickens are still responsible for large quantities of greenhouse gas because they rely on energy-intensive grain.

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Glossary terms used on this page
CO2
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Carbon
Carbon is the fourth most common chemical element in the universe, and carbon compounds - in other words, carbon chemically combined with other elements - are the basis of all known life forms on earth. Pure carbon appears in many apparently diverse forms, from diamond to graphite to charcoal, but it is much more commonly found in substances such as coal, oil, natural gas, wood and peat that we use for fuel. When we burn these substances to provide energy - either directly in our homes as heat, or in power stations to produce electricity - the combustion process produces 'oxides' of carbon, including the gas CO2.
Climate change
Climate change is the variation in the average global or regional climate as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall. This variation is caused by both natural processes and human activity. Weather is what happens over days or even hours, whereas climate is the average weather measured over a longer period. Increasingly when people refer to climate change, however, they specifically mean the phenomenon of global warming.
Emissions
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.

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