As an eco conscious consumer, you’re probably not just thinking about beauty products and clothing. You’re also probably thinking about what’s on your plate—and if sustainable meat options even exist.
While eco-friendly, plant-based options make for great swaps (there’s crispy tofu, tempeh, and even jackfruit!), it’s hard to fully give up animal products. But before choosing a more sustainable meat, here’s what you should know about the environmental impact of meat.
The Environmental Impact of Meat
There are some important things to consider about the environmental impact of meat. First up: the water footprint. Past research has found the water footprint of meat and other animal products is much higher than plants. While it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, a salad with tomato, lettuce, and cucumbers only requires 21 gallons.
There’s also the greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. And—you guessed it—a 2019 study published in Animal Frontiers found livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouses gases. Ultimately, research shows that the best thing to do for the environment is to eat more plants, with a 2020 study published in Nature Sustainability showing a widespread shift to a plant-based diet by 2050 could remove over 16 years of CO2 emissions.
But we get it: Switching to a plant-based diet isn’t the easiest thing in the world, and there are many logistical and cultural factors that prevent people from becoming vegetarian overnight. So, what if you’re not up for it—at least not yet? That’s when being able to choose the most sustainable meat comes in.
Here’s the most common types of meat you’ll find at the grocery store, ranked from best to worst in terms of sustainability. (As well as some labels to look for when trying to work these options into your sustainable diet.)
Popular Meat, Ranked from Best to Worst
According to the Sentience Institute, 99 percent of all meat produced in the United States is from factory-farmed animals. As you can imagine, that makes it a little difficult to find sustainable options. But there are still options. In a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), researchers found chicken is the most sustainable choice out of all the different types of meat.
When shopping, look for organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised labels. Pasture-raised or free-range animals are generally more environmentally-friendly and ethical, since these animals live close to nature. (Look for the “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” logo to ensure the animals are receiving the best possible care and treatment.) Instead of using energy-intensive processes to make sure animals are well-fed and land is taken care of, farmers shift pasture animals to new pastures when they’re at risk of over-grazing.
Turkey comes in at a close second behind chicken in terms of sustainability. Like chicken, look for sustainably and ethically-raised options. Aside from being better for the planet, experts say the meat also tastes better.
“High environmental and humane standards ultimately affect the taste and appearance of a turkey when it gets to your table,” Alan Hummel, category director of meat and seafood at New Seasons Market, told The Seattle Times. “Sustainability is important at every step, from the conditions a bird is raised in, to how it’s processed and then delivered to the market.”
According to Hummel, when turkeys (and any animal) has humane treatment and can live their lives like birds—aka not cooped up in tiny cages—they’re healthier and don’t need to be pumped with antibiotics. Being able to graze outside and get fresh air also makes a difference. Not just for the birds’ happiness, but also in flavor: “Giving turkeys access to move freely allows them to build stronger bones and muscle mass which turns out to be a more flavorful bird,” Hummel says.
Many types of fish and seafood have an environmental impact that sits on the lower range of most meat. However, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), overfishing occurs in 34.2 percent of global fisheries. That’s why the type you buy is so important.
According to Oceana, small schooling species—like anchovies and herring—have a lower environment impact because “catching them doesn’t burn much fossil fuel—the major source of emissions for fisheries.” Farmed mollusks also have a small carbon footprint, as they don’t need to be fed.
Options like Australian Tiger prawns or Norway lobster, on the other hand, have a much larger impact because of all the energy and resources needed to catch them. Then there’s options like farmed salmon, which the EWG says to avoid due to its environmental impact. All in all, do your research before making a seafood purchase to ensure the option you’re buying is as sustainable as possible.
Next up on the list is pork, which generates 12.1 kilos of CO2 per kilo consumed. While that may seem a lot compared to something like lentils (which only generates 0.9 kilos of CO2), beef still comes in at more than twice the emissions of pork.
Like other meat options, “Certified Humane,” or “Animal Welfare Approved” labels to ensure the pigs were treated as humanely as possible. Those labels also ensure the pigs weren’t confined in narrow cages their entire lives that are so small they’re unable to turn around. Those cages also prevent pigs from engaging in their natural behaviors, like nesting and socializing.
According to the EWG, cows produce the second-highest level of CO2 out of all meat options, generating 27.1 kilos of CO2 per kilo consumed. “That’s more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu,” the reports reads.
Unfortunately for the planet, Americans love beef and it makes up around 30 percent of all meat consumed in the United States. When you’re buying it, the labels make a huge difference. If you’re doing a big steak dinner, consider looking for a “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” option. Those cows aren’t confined to cages and are given continuous outdoor access, letting them exhibit some of their natural behaviors.
Many people think beef is the worst type of meat for the planet, but lamb—aka baby sheep less than one year old—is even worse. The EWG says it has the highest carbon footprint of all meats—one that’s “50 percent higher than beef.” And there’s a reason for why cows and lamb have such a high environmental impact compared to chicken and turkey.
“Cattle and lamb are what we call ‘ruminants.’ In the process of digesting food, they produce a lot of methane,” said researcher Hannah Ritchie in a past study. “If we removed methane, their emissions would fall by around half.”
According to the EGW, the reason lamb outweighs beef in terms of environmental impact is because lamb “produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight,” the study reads.
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