Meat has earned a bad reputation as an environmentally damaging food, in part because beef production is known to emit 20 times more greenhouse gases than bean production for the same protein benefit.
But is meat getting too much of the blame?
A Japan-based study, widely regarded as reflective of most wealthy nations, found that the consumption of sweets, alcohol and restaurant food adds to families’ carbon footprints in a larger capacity than other food and drink choices.
This evidence from Japan demonstrates that research can help us to identify what to focus on. The same patterns of dietary change need to be considered in the U.K., Australia, the U.S. and Europe, researchers say.
The findings warn against applying one-size-fits-all policies to change the consumption behaviors that are most accelerating man-made climate change.
The researchers, based at the U.K.’s University of Sheffield and the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, Japan, analyzed the carbon footprints of the diets of 60,000 households across Japan’s 47 regions. They found that meat consumption was relatively constant per household but carbon footprints were not. Eating out was found to contribute on average 770 kilograms of greenhouse gases per year for those households with a higher footprint, whereas meat contributed just 280 kilograms.
The study published in the journal One Earth showed that meat consumption could explain less than 10% of the difference seen in carbon footprints between Japanese families. Instead, households with higher carbon footprints tended to consume more food from restaurants, as well as more vegetables and fish. However, it was the level of consumption of sweets and alcohol — two to three times higher than families with low carbon footprints — that really stood out.
“If we are serious about reducing our carbon footprints, then our diets must change,” said study author and associate professor Keiichiro Kanemoto at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto. “If we think of a carbon tax, it might be wiser to target sweets and alcohol if we want a progressive system… to target less-nutritious foods that are excessively consumed in some populations.”
Large and small spirits manufacturers, which rely heavily on land, water and transportation, have joined the shift toward sustainable practices, to varying degrees, in part because younger consumers demand it. Among them, Bacardi, beginning five years ago, claimed to be a leader in its industry for opening up its sustainability goal-tracking for public scrutiny.
Eating out was found to contribute on average 770 kilograms of greenhouse gases per year for those households with a higher footprint, whereas meat contributed just 280 kilograms, according to the study.
The study’s focus on Japan is significant for consumption habits in most industrial countries. Its population is one of the oldest in the world, a trend that many wealthy countries are following. The Japanese also have a relatively healthy diet, which is frequently attributed to them having the world’s longest life span by country.
“Due to wealth, culture and farming practices, different regions in a country consume food differently,” said study co-author Dr. Christian Reynolds of the Institute of Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. “This evidence from Japan demonstrates that research can help us to identify what to focus on. The same patterns of dietary change in terms of sugar, alcohol and dining out need to be considered in the U.K., Australia, the U.S. and Europe.”
The U.S.-based National Restaurant Association was not available to comment on any lessons or takeaways from the Japanese study because of holiday schedules. Its own research has shown that U.S. trends favoring eating out for diversity in culinary offerings and as a form of entertainment, as well as an increase in placing take-out and delivery orders, aren’t slowing down. Baby boomers wish they could use restaurants more often than millennials or Gen Xers, says the trade group, which did release an annual report in 2018 on industry efforts toward sustainability.
Within the restaurant study, Kanemoto does address red meat, recommending eating less to reduce a household’s environmental impact overall. “Meat is a high-carbon-footprint food. Replacing red meat consumption with white meat and vegetables will lower a family’s carbon footprint,” he said.
For certain, high-meat diets have increasingly been the target of climate-change research.
In an early-December letter published in The Lancet Planetary Health Journal, a group of 50 scientists said that all but the poorest countries, where accessing protein for survival outweighs being selective about the source, should set a time frame for livestock production to stop expanding.
If the meat and dairy sector were to continue on its present trajectory, it would account for almost half of the emissions that the researchers expect between now and 2030, those scientists said. To limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C, the global annual emission reduction needed is 7.6% every year between 2020 and 2030, according to the voluntary pledge laid out in the Paris climate agreement.
While meat is a favorite target of those hoping for a change in farming and consumption, vegetarians aren’t blameless either, experts say. If vegetarians eat cheese or dairy products their demand for livestock rises.
While meat is a favorite target of those hoping for a change in farming and consumption, vegetarians aren’t blameless when it comes to climate impact. That’s because if vegetarians eat cheese or dairy products their demand for livestock is equally high.
Findings from scientists at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health found that diets in which meat, fish or dairy products were consumed only once a day have a smaller negative impact on emissions and water supplies than exclusively vegetarian diets of three meals a day, including milk and eggs, in 95% of countries analyzed.
Emissions from livestock account for about 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions, globally, and roughly two-thirds of those emissions come from cattle, particularly the methane gas emitted by the animals, according to United Nations data. Growing feed, a process with its own emissions, and clearing land for grazing and crops also has an environmental impact.
The beef industry has argued that campaigns against eating meat are short-sighted, in part because the discussion doesn’t focus enough on what the industry is doing toward sustainability. Sara Place, senior director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said her own research in combination with USDA findings that points to fewer cattle producing more meat as farms got more efficient. That’s a sign, she says, that points to producers doing more toward sustainability from the supply side — including addressing methane — rather than bowing to demands for less meat consumption.