What's the carbon footprint of lamb?
The popularity of lamb varies from country to country. In the UK, lamb is a popular meat and often eaten as part of celebrations.
You may know that beef production is one of the highest emitters of carbon in the world. But how much do you know about the carbon footprint of lamb?
Carbon Footprint of Lamb
A portion of lamb (160g) produces 3.33kg CO₂e*
223% more than a portion of turkey
1,010% more than a portion of tofu
2,927% more than a portion of lentils
52% less than a portion of beef
equivalent to driving 8.3 miles in a car
*CO₂e means carbon dioxide equivalent and measures total greenhouse gases
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Where does lamb come from?
The UK is fairly self-sufficient for lamb but still imports roughly one-third of all lamb eaten from abroad.
There are plenty of producers of lamb around the world, but for the UK, the majority of its imports come from New Zealand and Australia. This is followed by Ireland, the Netherlands, Iceland and Argentina.
In fact, roughly 30 million metric tons of lamb was imported from New Zealand and 9 million metric tons was imported from Australia in 2021.
Maybe you're already asking it... When we have lamb producers in Europe, why are our main sources from the other side of the world?
Well, it all comes down to costs. New Zealand’s climate means that lamb can be raised year-round. On top of this, production costs are lower than in Europe and there are fewer cases of disease in animals.
Greenhouse gas emissions from lamb production
Lamb, along with beef, has much higher greenhouse gas emissions than chicken, pork, or plant-based alternatives.
A methodology called life cycle assessments (LCAs) helps us to determine which greenhouse gases and how much gas is released.
Lamb's climate impact from methane, feed and transport
Methane from nature's call
Similarly to beef production, the main greenhouse gas produced by lamb is not carbon dioxide but, in fact, methane. We also measure methane's climate impact in CO₂ equivalents (CO₂e).
Sheep, goats and cows belong to a group called ruminants. And this group is well known for producing large amounts of methane when they digest their food. In other words, they fart & poo. A lot.
Methane is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it traps heat into the atmosphere 85x more effectively than carbon dioxide over 20 years. This speeds up the effects of global warming. Secondly, when it leaves the atmosphere, it forms water and carbon dioxide, meaning it further contributes to CO₂ production.
Land use for animal feed
Animal feed production is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Many have raised the question of whether it's worth producing food to produce... well...more food.
The time, energy and land used to feed animals could go directly to producing food for people, and this would dramatically reduce emissions.
Of course, the consumption of meat is a controversial topic. Not only does it raise questions related to the climate and environment, but also over animal welfare. That in itself is a strong enough reason for many people to go meat-free.
Given that the majority of our lamb comes from New Zealand and Australia you can imagine that transporting lamb to supermarkets here in the UK also contributes to the carbon footprint.
Lamb products are generally transported to the UK by sea. This lowers the carbon footprint slightly compared to air transport, but the long distances still ramp up the energy needed and climate impact.
Are there other ways lamb impacts the environment?
There are several other ways that lamb consumption impacts the planet.
Water use. Lamb production needs less water than beef production, but it’s still high compared to many meat alternatives, vegetables and fruits. On average, it takes roughly nine litres of water to produce one kilogram of lamb.
Land use. If not managed correctly, sheep farming can have several harmful impacts on the environment, including biodiversity in the farming area.
Food waste. It's estimated that as much as 23% of all meat produced is wasted. Rotting food waste produces releases more methane into the atmosphere, as well as wastes the precious resources that were used to rear animals. Given the enormous relative carbon footprint of lamb, if we are going to produce lamb, we should definitely not be wasting it!
Tips for choosing more environmentally-friendly lamb
Cutting back on the amount of lamb you eat, or completely removing it from your diet, is the simplest way to reduce the environmental impact.
If you continue to eat lamb every now and then, choose locally-sourced lamb to reduce food miles and greenhouse gas emissions related to transport.
Sustainable recipes and substitutes for lamb
Switch lamb to meat with a lower carbon footprint. For example, instead of lamb koftas, try koftas made with turkey instead.
Plant-based meat substitutes can offer similar textures and flavours to lamb and meat with a lower carbon footprint.
Replace minced lamb with lentils flavoured with herbs and spices, like mint, to recreate the flavours of your favourite lamb dishes.