If you’ve ever heard the plight of an environmentalist wanting you to eat less red meat and switch to alternative proteins, and want to know why, this article is for you.
Art by Jessica Kamman
About 25% of global emissions contributing to climate change are caused by the agricultural and factory-farming industries. That percentage is comparable to the emissions caused by the entire energy sector. This means that we not only should focus on sustainable energy sources, but also more sustainable eating habits, if we want to keep global increase in temperature below 2 degrees, according to the Paris Climate Agreement. Changing the way we get our protein can significantly reduce emissions and other contributing factors to climate change.
One study published by the World Research Institute claims that a reduction in red meat consumption (mainly beef and lamb) could lead to “a per capita food and land use-related greenhouse gas emissions reduction of between 15 and 35 percent by 2050.” Even better, more people going vegetarian would reduce emissions per capita by half.
The reason behind these dramatic reductions in emissions is mainly because of beef, which is the most insufficient protein to consume in terms of resources needed per calories consumed. One research paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used data from 2000 to 2010 from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior and Energy to find the resources (such as land, water, and nitrogen fertilizer) needed to raise specifically animal based protein. They found that beef production requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water than other animal proteins. All together, beef contributes 5 times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to other animal proteins. Plant protein is even more efficient, requiring 2-4 times less resources than poultry, pork, eggs or dairy.
Going vegan or vegetarian, according to leading research is the best dietary change benefitting the forest and climate. Getting your proteins through tofu, chickpeas, lentils, beans, and various other resources is a healthy decision for yourself and your climate.
This figure demonstrates the resources various proteins require in their production.
In general, the middle class constitutes the majority of beef consumers. The demand for beef is projected to rapidly increase along with the population in the next few decades. By 2050, the world population is projected to increase by a third and reach 9.9 billion people. The majority of those individuals are expected to add to the middle class and subsequently increase the demand for red meat. This means that unless demand is changed to alternative proteins, red meat production efforts will increase to supply this demand. In all likelihood, this will mean more deforestation to create pastures, more resources devoted to raising cattle, and more greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.
Not only do the resources required to raise these animals contribute, but the livestock themselves contribute to emissions with non-CO2 greenhouse gasses such as methane resulting from their production. Methane, a byproduct of digestion, is transferred from the biosphere to the atmosphere from cow burps. To be more precise, both ends of the cow contribute, but over 90% of methane from cows is from their burps. Although methane is shorter lived compared to CO2 and present at significantly lower concentrations, it is more potent than CO2, meaning it is more effective at absorbing heat and contributing to global warming. Other protein options, such as chicken, fish, or plants, do not produce methane.
Although changing the world’s affinity for red meat won’t happen overnight, individual change can happen at any time. I, for one, am an example. It was two years ago this Fall when, for a school sustainability project, I decided to try eating no red meat for a month. I thought it would be difficult to change my eating habits, but it turned out so well I haven’t eaten any red meat since. I have never regretted my decision to transition my diet for the sake of the environment, because every day I feel like I’m contributing to making a more sustainable future.
Eating less red meat is an accessible and daily action that everyone can do to reduce their carbon footprint. It doesn’t have to mean going from eating red meat daily to going vegan (although that would be the most helpful in emission reductions) it can simply mean reducing the amount of red meat you consume by having, for example, no meat on Mondays, eating poultry instead of beef, and various other eating habits. If you take anything away from this article, it should be that making a difference doesn’t have to be a life-changing decision, it can be making small everyday decisions that lead to big improvements for yourself, your community, and the environment.