How much better is vegetarian food? An easy way to do something good for the environment

Have you ever thought that an environmentally-friendly diet sucks if it means eating less meat? And do you wonder how much of a difference it even makes if you cut out meat? Let’s look at the latter:

Meat is indeed a very energy-intensive way of feeding ourselves. By becoming vegetarian you would reduce your greenhouse gas emissions from food by about a third. If you are a real meat lover you would almost cut them by half. But it’s also worth knowing that not all meat is equal. By just choosing different types of meat you can reduce your environmental impact quite a bit.

Not all meat is equal

The differences are quite significant. The chart below shows the carbon emission equivalent per kg of meat for different types of meat at farmgate, and the carbon emissions in 1kg of other foods for comparison:

Sources: Environmental Working Group, Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health (2011); Natural Capital Ltd. 2009. Life cycle assessment of Scottish wild venison. Scottish Natural Heritage Archive Report No. 024. Both sources provide values for emissions at farm gate, before processing and transportation.


Why are emissions from meat so high?

There are 2 rules to ballpark how much emissions your meat probably caused:

1. How did the animal live?

Farmed animals’ feed has usually been produced somewhere else and transported to the farm. That means that the animals’ food has its own high footprint from farming and transportation, which really adds up over the years. One of the reasons why chicken has a lower footprint than beef is that chickens eat less than cows. Wild animals like deer eat only grass and other naturally growing food. That’s why their impact is also smaller. However, it’s all about the balance. The reason that we farm cattle is that we need so much beef to maintain our diet. If everyone replaces all beef with venison tomorrow, we’ll probably end up in the same bad place again. It’s about variation, and, ultimately, about eating less meat overall.

2. Does the animal ruminate?

The digestive system of ruminating animals is different from ours. They partly digest food, then bring it back into their mouth, chew it again, and then it goes into their stomach. While doing this, they exhale a lot of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas and more or less doubles the footprint of the meat from these animals. Ruminating animals include cattle, sheep, goats, and deer. Again, the best answer is to eat less meat, but eating chicken or pork already improves your footprint by avoiding these methane emissions.

Interestingly, how far the meat has been transported is not very important

Even when meat is transported far, emissions from transportation will likely be < 5% of total emissions. Meat production has such a high footprint that farming methods have a much bigger impact than transportation. Emissions from transportation are mainly relevant for vegetables and fruits that have a short shelf-life after the harvest. For example, asparagus or berries generate almost 0 emissions if grown and consumed locally. However, if they are air-freighted to the UK emissions from transportation will make up > 90% of their total emissions.

Where can you start to reduce your footprint?  

  1. Meat supply in the UK has increased by 28% between 1985 and 2015 and in 2015 alone it increased by 5%. Stopping that trend by not eating more meat every year, or going further and reducing meat consumption, is a great start.

  2. Try some of the amazing vegetarian dishes out there. Check out our iPhone App!