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Meat-based vs plant-based emissions

Date Published: 17-10-2021

According to a new study published in scientific journal Nature Food, meat production is responsible for 57 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, twice as much as growing and processing plants for food. The research found that the using animals for food, as well as growing plants used to feed farmed animals bound for slaughter, is responsible for the vast majority of all food production emissions.  Raising and growing food for cattle alone, accounts for one-quarter of emissions.  Growing and processing plants for food, however, make up only 29 percent of emissions, with the rest coming from other, more general uses of land. 

For the study, researchers quantified GHG emissions from the production and consumption of plant- and animal-based foods.  They built a database that provided a consistent emissions profile of 171 crops and 16 animal products, drawing from more than 200 countries.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that South America has the largest share of animal-based food emissions, followed by South and Southeast Asia and then China.

The study noted that using animals for food requires a lot of land, which is often cleared through the felling of forests, as well as additional land to grow their feed.  The study calculates that the majority of the entire world’s cropland is used to feed livestock rather than people.  Farmed animals themselves also produce large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. So clearly not an efficient system or use of precious resources.

Because of the huge difference in emissions between animal and plant food production, researchers suggest that countries should be aware of the significant discrepancy when addressing the climate crisis.  In total, the global production of food is responsible for one-third of all GHGs emitted by human activity, with the use of animals for meat causing twice as much emissions as producing plant-based foods.  To produce one kilogram of wheat, for example, 2.5 kilograms of GHGs are emitted, while one kilogram of beef creates 70 kilograms of emissions.

A recent UN Climate Change report said that human activity is “unequivocally” responsible for climate change and humanity has only a few years left to keep the planet from warming 1.5°C past post-industrial levels.  The report outlines the urgency with which humanity needs to reduce its GHG emissions to limit the planet’s warming. The impact on the environment that meat production, and to a lesser extent, dairy production has, is significantly damaging. 

It’s suggested that the global meat and dairy industries are responsible for 60 percent of GHG emissions and that if individuals removed animal products from their diets, they would reduce their carbon footprint by 73 percent.  The researchers also found that if meat and dairy production were to cease, global farmland use would be reduced by 75 percent.