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Meat diet more than twice as bad for the planet

Two recent reports underline the fact that a plant-based diet is far better for the environment

Posted : 7 January 2022

A new study looking at the environmental impact of diet on the individual level has found that a meat eater’s carbon footprint is almost two-thirds (59 per cent) the size of a meat free eater’s.

Researchers at the University of Leeds reached the figure after calculating the carbon cost of 40,000 branded items of food and more than 3,000 generic ones, then comparing their greenhouse gasiness with the results of an online survey of 212 adults over three separate 24-hour periods. The found meat was linked to 32 per cent of diet-related emissions, and dairy 14 per cent.

“Meat was the dominant driver for diet-related greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, explaining most of the differences between GHG emissions associated with vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, and between the differences in GHG emissions associated with the diets of men and women,” the report concluded.

Meanwhile a separate study has found that rearing animals for meat produces twice the pollution of growing plant-based foods, and that the global food system is responsible for more than a third (35 per cent) of the greenhouse gases produced by human activity. That figure – 17.3 billion metric tonnes a year – is double the annual emissions of the United States.

The report is another hammer blow to the meat industry, confirming as it does a slew of findings that show meat production is wreaking considerably more damage on the planet than growing crops and vegetables. Livestock and feed production is responsible for 57 per cent of food production emissions – beef alone accounts for a quarter of all emission – compared with 29 per cent for plant-based food, the report found.

Xiaoming Xu, environmental scientist who led the University of Illinois research, highlighted the absurdity and impracticality of a food system heavily weighted towards meat. “To produce more meat you need to feed the animals more, which then generates more emissions,” he said. “You need more biomass to feed animals in order to get the same amount of calories. It isn’t very efficient.”

Co-author Atul Jain, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois, said the higher-than-expected emissions were a surprise. “This study shows the entire cycle of the food production system, and policymakers may want to use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“I’m a strict vegetarian and part of the motivation for this study was to find out my own carbon footprint, but it’s not our intention to force people to change their diets. A lot of this comes down to personal choice. You can’t just impose your views on others. But if people are concerned about climate change, they should seriously consider changing their dietary habits.”

Read the report

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