What's the carbon footprint of beef?
Roughly a quarter (1/4) of global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Livestock agriculture, the farming of animals, is one of the biggest contributors. Red meat, and beef in particular, is one of the highest emitting foods and sources of greenhouse gases. Let's explore why the carbon footprint of beef is so high.
Carbon Footprint of Beef
1 portion of beef (160g) produces 6,933g CO₂e*
52% more than lamb producing 3,330g CO₂e
89% more than chicken producing 753g CO₂e
96% more than tofu producing 297g CO₂e
*CO₂e means carbon dioxide equivalent and measures total greenhouse gases
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Where does beef come from?
Roughly 85% of the beef eaten in the UK is produced internally and the other 15% is imported, meaning we're pretty self-sufficient when it comes to beef. Of the imported beef, the majority comes from Ireland, followed by Poland and the Netherlands.
In Britain, pretty much all beef cows graze grass in the summer and are fed hay, silage or straw in winter. In many cases they'll remain grazing throughout winter too, but for some farmers this isn't possible. And, interesting because the vast majority of UK beef is grass-fed it often gets labeled as 'more sustainable' than other beef products in other countries...but, there's plenty of debate as to whether this is true or not!
Greenhouse gas emissions from beef production
Beef has the highest carbon footprint of any food item, producing 36kg of CO₂e for every kilogram of beef.
As cows need to eat, the carbon footprint of beef starts with their feed. Feed crops tend to included alfalfa/grass hay and silage, corn silage, high moisture corn, and dry corn grain, and their entire life cycle (planting, harvesting, processing, transport and storage) needs to be considered. And, if you think about the fact that these crops could have been eaten directly by people, you start to understand why it's so important for us to reduce our meat consumption.
The cattle production (birth to death) then needs to be considered. Cows produce a lot of methane! And, methane is problematic as it has been found to be more damaging to the environment over time than CO2! In fact, it has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere, and roughly 25% of today's global warming is driven by methane.
Processing, packing and transportation of the meat product further adds to the carbon footprint. The machinery used to cut, grind, and prepare the meat all consumes energy, and the packaging (mainly plastic) and transportation (cold-storage) also comes with CO2e price tag.
Are there other ways beef impacts the environment?
Beef production carries an enormous environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, deforestation, acid rain, and biodiversity loss if the appropriate measures are not in place to reduce the impact.
Tips for choosing sustainable beef
'Sustainable' beef comes with a lot of questions..is it really possible? does it make a difference if it is organic? grass-fed? or produced locally? And, to be honest it's difficult to give a concrete answer.
When it comes to organic beef production, you might think it would be better for the planet but some studies have found the carbon footprint of organic beef to be the same, if not higher than conventionally produced beef (fed with dried hay or straw). As, what the cows eat doesn't really impact the methane produced. However, when considering the environmental aspects, organic is considered better than conventional farming as less chemical fertilisers are used.
Lab-grown meat, or 'cultivated meat', however might provide the sustainable option many are searching for...A lot more research is needed to fully understand whether cultivated meat really does have a lower carbon footprint (as well as the health effects), but the science is growing and there are more and more businesses popping up - so keep an eye out!
Sustainable recipes and substitutes using beef
There are so many meat alternatives out there! Check out some of our low carbon, veggie recipe suggestions:
Free-from Mushroom Bourguignon
Although they aren’t an exact nutritional match, mushrooms such as shiitake, King oyster, and portobello are a great substitute for beef in almost every meal. They have a hearty texture, and are packed full of flavour meaning your meal can be delicious and great for the planet.
Asian BBQ’d Tempeh Lettuce Wraps
Tempeh, a traditional Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans, is another brilliant meat alternative. It works best when marinated, especially with flavours from asian cuisine.
Friday Night Lemon Tofu
If you love Chinese food, but want to go meat free… then this lemon Tofu dish is just the ticket!