Can we eat meat and be climate friendly?

What is climate friendly food? That is the question that me and my fellow students asked when we started to work on a project for one of the agronomy course at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The project was about modifying commonly cooked recipes so they have lower carbon footprint. The goal was to reduce food consumption emissions from 2 to 1 tons CO2e per person in a year.

Photo credit: Erik Forsberg (Flickr/Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0)

The project was also about designing inspiring tasty recipes, which people would want to cook. The project resulted in about 60 climate friendly recipes. We also constructed two climate friendly weekly lunch menus by using the recipes.

Figuring out the most environmentally friendly eating options requires special assessment. Created for evaluating environmental impact of production, LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) is one of such tools. LCA is also commonly used to calculate the climate impact of food production and includes all activities involved in the process, from cultivation, to activities on the farm, including all transportation and disposal. LCA is a sophisticated methodology, and food LCAs can become very complex because value chains of food products can be long and it can also be difficult to obtain reliable data.

Putting the numbers together, is one type of meat more climate friendly than the other?

So, the good news is that we can eat meat and still be climate friendly, but we need to take into account how much and what meat we eat. Scientists devised an equivalent measure called CO2e (which literally means carbon dioxide equivalent) by calculating the level of greenhouse gas emissions from meat production. This indicator takes into account not only carbon dioxide, but also other gases such as methane.  

Our LCA model showed that from a climate perspective it is better to eat poultry, fish and vegetable in comparison with beef: a meal with vegetables produces around 0,07 to 1 kilo CO2e/portion and a meal with beef produces around 5 to 9 kilo CO2e/portion. So for example, if you do a beef goulash with minced meat it’s around 4 kilo CO2e/portion. If you, instead of meat, add root vegetables and lenses you suddenly have reduced the emissions with 93%! 

This scale illustrates the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by different food categories, such as vegetables, pork and beef.

There are many different reasons why there is a big difference in emissions between different types of meat. One is the difference of inputs such as feed for animals, water and energy for farm operation. Another reason is the fact that grazing animals are ruminants and hence produce more methane than poultry or fish.

Reduce & replace: a guide to climate concious meat eating

According to our study (with the goal to reduce the emissions from from 2 to 1 tonne CO2e/person and year) a portion should produce around 1,4 kg CO2e to be defined as climate friendly. This is not a precise claim, because it doesn’t include the benefits that come from beef production. For example it is known that grazing animals in Sweden can contribute to an increase in biodiversity and varied agricultural landscapes, it is not, however, the same in other parts of the world where overgrazing and afforestation are severe grazing related problems.

Furthermore, it is also true that some types of meat can be better than others. For example, in Sweden you can find locally sourced beef, which comes from cows grazing on fields not very suitable for growing crops. Another example of the added socio-economic value in the case of meat is small-scale livestock production, especially in low-income countries with marginal lands unsuitable for many agricultural crops. In this case livestock production can support livelihoods by being an important source of protein and additional income. These are factors and values that LCAs do not include.

The main conclusion from the project was that we, the consumers, need to change our diet to eating far less meat, and when we eat it, it should be sourced sustainably. Clearly there is a big difference in recipes with different types of meat. I’ll give you an example of how you can reduce GHGs by 64% by mixing meat with vegetables in a pasta dish. In the original recipe there were 500 grams of beef. Firstly we changed the meat to mixed minced meat (both beef and pork). Totally we only used 250 grams of meat instead of 500 grams and substituted the rest with 230 grams of mashed cooked kidney beans. As easy as that!

Photo credit: Kenneth Leung (Flickr/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

This blog is written by Lovisa Neikter, an agronomy student at SLU Sweden who currently does field work in Uganda.  

Want to learn more?

Here you can find climate friendly recipies from the project we took part of.

Here you can read about the “One Tonne Life” – a world-unique test in which a family with children try to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to one tonne per person per year.

Food Tank writes about other ways to mitigate the emissions from the livestock´s production.