18 Meat Carbon Footprint Facts: The Emissions of Every Meat Type

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | November 7, 2023

Meat caron footprint shown with two people eating steaks outdoors, with drak brown footprints rising form the plates of meat, and both people wondering what is the carbon footprint of eating meat?

Have you ever wondered why meat carbon footprint emissions are so much higher than veggies and other foods?

Fact #1: A whopping one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the way humans produce, process, package, and consume food, according to a recent UN study,3 and a large part of those emissions come from meat’s carbon footprint.

Calculate Meat Carbon Footprint Now

Over 19 billion US tons, scientists say is generated by meat consumption, measuring about 34 percent of the world’s Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG).

But what are the facts about meat carbon footprint amounts? Is it really much worse to eat meat4 compared to a plastic-wrapped twinkie?

The following 18 facts will have you rethinking your meat consumption.

What is the Carbon Footprint of Meat?

The carbon footprint of meat is higher than plants for a few reasons.

Fact #2: Emissions usually center around carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents, but livestock’s emissions include methane, a gas 30 times more toxic to the environment than CO2.

Fact #3: Beef cultivation produces the most greenhouse gas emissions. For every 4 oz of beef protein, 100 pounds of CO2 are released into the atmosphere.

Fact #4: Lamb has the next highest environmental footprint. The emissions are half of that of beef. Cattle emit more methane than poultry, which rely more on overseas feed.1

What Type of Meat Has the Lowest Carbon Footprint?

Fact #5: When considering the type of meat that has the lowest carbon footprint, wild seafood has one-sixth the carbon footprint of red meat.2

Wild seafood has a much-reduced carbon footprint than red meat and dairy products and is considered a possibility for more sustainable diets. However, wild seafood does play a role in the ecological footprint of meat.

This analysis is based on gas emissions associated with twenty marine species that make up nearly 75 percent of the animal species consumed for human needs.

Wild seafood emissions are much lower than those connected to beef, lamb, and pigs.

Fact #6: One burger generates the same amount of CO2 as nine pounds of wild sardines.

A classic cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion on a sesame seed bun, accompanied by a side of fries and a blurred background with a glass of beer and more food.

(Image: geralt48)

This low environmental impact is possible because fish need little or no land to cultivate, while beef requires five square feet of land to produce a single protein.

From the wild seafood and fish selection available, farmed clams, mussels, seaweeds, and scallops had the least environmental impact. Herring, anchovies, herring, and other pelagic fish are close behind.

Fact #7: When it comes to farmed fish, salmon and trout use the least land and water resources.

As an important nutrition source that generates relatively low environmental damage pressures, fish offer the possibility of improving nutrition with a lower environmental impact and assist in reducing the planetary food system environmental stress.

Why Do Beef Herd and Dairy Cattle Generate So Much Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Depending on where you source it, there are arguments both for and against the claim that beef and dairy have the highest eco-impact5 on the planet, negative, that is.

For example, the difference in the environmental impact of consuming a steak that was raised, fed and processed on the same private farm where it’s eaten, versus the carbon footprint generated by having an avocado shipped 2000 miles to its point of sale, and then even further by purchasing and taking it home can’t compare.

The cow that was raided and consumed on the same farm will be comparable to the veggie that had to be shipped, because of the shipping carbon footprint generated. Moreover, when processed at home, there’s very little plastic carbon footprint.

But, although there are always exceptions to every rule when generally approaching the question, the reason that beef and dairy products produce higher levels of GHGs is because of:

  • The nature of their needs (large areas for grazing, etc.)
  • The processing involved (food processing energy)
  • The methane they produce

Some scientists challenge this conclusion and insist that giving up meat isn’t the environmental solution that can make a huge difference in the world’s emissions.

They claim that cows and other meat-for-harvest species account for only 4 percent of all greenhouse gasses produced in the U.S., with beef cattle only 2 percent of direct emissions.

However, most scientists recognize that beef and dairy products generate higher levels of GHGs than that when the entire supply chain is factored into the equation.

(Need more info? Check out how a carbon footprint calculation is made.)

Can Seaweed Lower Beef Emissions?

In a confluence of sorts, seaweed, highly recommended for environmentally friendly human consumption, is used in reducing methane output.

Fact #8: A seaweed diet reduces belching and flatulence and doesn’t alter the taste of the milk produced—a potentially and relatively inexpensive solution for reducing dairy emissions.

The industrial potential of seaweed has its unintended consequences. The red seaweed needed to feed cattle isn’t as available in the quantities needed to provide enough of a feed supply.

Other ways to grow the seaweed to scale are actively being implemented.

How Do Emissions From Meat, Dairy, and Other Foods Compare?

Measuring and comparing the environmental impact of different foods is complicated because some measurements include processing emissions on top of packaging and transportation, rather than only farming emissions.

Fact #9: In the UK, greenhouse gas emissions are less so in beef because the landscape and climate are suitable for growing grass, which covers 60 percent of available farmland. That results in cows relying less on grain and other feed, which has a high carbon footprint.

However, in rainforest areas that must be ‘cleared’ to create grazing land, the meat carbon footprint is much higher.

Additional emissions from meat are generated during the processing, transporting, storing (refrigeration), and packaging. Every step along the supply chain adds to the meat’s carbon footprint.

What About Other Foods? What’s the Carbon Footprint of Beyond Meat?

It seems that a healthy trend is taking place with people wanting to reduce their dietary impact on the environment. Some have rejected meat as a form of substance.

Fact #10: Beyond Meat is a product that is similar in taste, but has up to 12 percent fewer emissions than biological beef.

Non-animal protein generally does emit much fewer greenhouse gasses than meat and dairy. But, the supply chain issues also exist with this form of protein, as well as the production emissions.

Fact #11: Replacing beef with pork may sound like a good choice, but opting for peas is even better. Peas produce 90 percent fewer emissions than meat.

Fact #12: Currently, around 50 percent of all farmable land is used for agriculture while 75 percent of that land is used to raise livestock.

Related Reading: Find the carbon footprint of anything and ways to erase it with a carbon offset calculator or a carbon offset tree planting calculator.

To feed a growing world population, it’s far more efficient to use the land to produce vegetarian crops yet have a fair global approach to ensure that parts of the world with diets high in meat and dairy shift to plant-based foods.

How Do Types of Meat and Food Relate to Carbon Emissions?

How do meat, dairy, and other food emissions compare?

The methods used to assess the relative climate impact of different food groups are based on an analysis of emissions relative to the land required for production, the farming process, and the transportation and selling stages.

The climate impact of beef and lamb overwhelms all other food production. Much has to do with how farmed-for-meat animals digest food.

Broadly speaking, products from cows, sheep, and pigs, who have four stomachs, contribute greatly to greenhouse gas. The culprit is methane gas as a by-product of the digestive needs of multiple stomachs.

Cows and sheep contain bacteria that can digest tough, fibrous nutrients like grass. The digestive process forces cattle to belch and fart methane, a greenhouse gas thirty times more powerful than CO2. It’s nasty stuff.

Harvesting cows is more than twice carbon-intensive as producing lamb. Why?

Fact #13: Cows take longer to raise and reproduce, which means that beef production needs much more feed and land than other animals raised for the slaughter.

The conversion of land for beef production and animal feed leads to the destruction of forests. The Amazon has long suffered from apocalyptic fires linked to the clearing of land leased out to cattle ranching.

Eating beef raised on grain produced in the Amazon is equivalent to coal-fueled power plants.

Poultry Carbon Footprint

Fact #14: Most greenhouse gasses generated by the poultry industry are from feed production. The poultry farmer has little control over the production and distribution of the poultry feed.

What they can control are the other emissions that take place on the farm like the emissions from using fossil fuels and from the management of manure. Studies conducted to evaluate on-farm greenhouse gas emissions showed that 90 percent of the emissions came from propane and diesel gas use.

Fact #15: Chicken farming is estimated to emit 0.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which adds up to 8 percent of the livestock sector emissions. While poultry emissions are lower than those of cattle, the industry’s rapid rate of growth requires reductions in emission intensity.

In order to reduce your carbon footprint without going full-on veggie, chicken is the best option.

Fact #16: Chicken produces two kg of C02 per kg of meat, which doesn’t include processing and transport.

Still, there are pertinent issues concerning slaughter and processing, which are more energy-intensive than slaughtering ruminant animals.

Comparing Other Foods With Meat

Wild seafood has one-sixth the carbon footprint of red meat. Still, no meat consumption is Impact-free including wild fisheries.

A more efficient option can decrease aquatic protein food prices by a quarter, which will reduce red meat consumption, one that contributes to diet-related poor health and diseases while also assuring the tens of millions of people avoid negative nutritional intake.

Seafood offers myriad ways of supplying nutrients compared to land-based animal proteins.

Fact #17: 3000 wild seafood species are presently harvested while many more are raised by aquaculture.

A seafood diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and minerals. The top nutrient-rich animal-source foods are sea-based.

Access to a balanced fish diet will also make a significant difference in the diets of vulnerable populations. Hunger affects 700 million people worldwide while two billion more suffer from micro-nutrient deficiencies. Well-managed fisheries will fill the gap via a healthy nutritional option.

History has proven on numerous occasions that effective oceanic management will bring fish back from the brink of species collapse, sometimes in only a decade.

Fact #18: Only 28 countries and the European Union are currently responsible for 90 percent of the world’s fish catch, which points to the possibility that pragmatic ocean harvest will have a profound planetary impact.

There’s no need to choose between feeding society and preserving our environment, water, and air. We can protect biodiversity in our oceans while managing climate change and feeding the populations most needy.

How To Reduce Climate Change by Changing Your Food Diet

At the end of the day, replacing meat with other forms of protein is simple in today’s technological world.

Also, the plant-based diet will save countless billions spent on healthcare, making it a holistic option for the planet. But, there are other options for erasing the emissions generated by meat.

Reduce Carbon Footprint of Beef Consumption With Offsetting Strategies

It’s also possible to erase a meat carbon footprint using offset strategies that plant trees (which capture and store the emissions).

These types of tree planting carbon offset strategies, offered by the most transparent carbon offsetting companies deliver a plant-wide benefit by creating resources that can help ecosystems fight emissions naturally.

Since another way meat contributes to climate change is via the destruction of forests and other habitats cleared to make its way for pasture and for the growing of fodder to be eaten by cattle, reforestation programs can have a huge positive impact in lowering the overall eco footprint of any lifestyle.

With a rise in beef consumption in large countries like China, which have witnessed increasing prosperity, cattle farming has become very lucrative. Ranchers in pursuit of profit have destroyed hundreds of thousands of square miles of rainforest—vital, biodiverse ecosystems that could capture millions of tons of CO2.

(Note: Use an individual carbon footprint calculator or the meat footprint calculator above to discover your exact food carbon footprint.)

By rebuilding these ecosystems, the planet will have the natural carbon capture technology it needs to reverse the impact of meat carbon footprint problems for years to come.


References

1The carbon footprint of foods: are differences explained by the impacts of methane? (2020, March 10). Our World in Data. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from <https://ourworldindata.org/carbon-footprint-food-methane>

2Oceana. (2021, September 16). Wild seafood has a lower carbon footprint than red meat, cheese, and chicken, according to latest data. Blog. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from <https://oceana.org/blog/wild-seafood-has-lower-carbon-footprint-red-meat-cheese-and-chicken-according-latest-data/>

3United Nations. (2021, March 09). Food systems account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. UN News. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from <https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1086822>

4United Nations. (2018, November 08). Every bite of burger boosts harmful greenhouse gases: UN Environment Agency. UN News. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from <https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/11/1025271>

5Clear Center. (2020, July 07). Why methane from cattle warms the climate differently than CO2 from fossil fuels. Explainers. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from <https://clear.ucdavis.edu/explainers/why-methane-cattle-warms-climate-differently-co2-fossil-fuels>

6Photo by geralt. Pixabay. Retrieved from <https://pixabay.com/illustrations/ai-generated-hamburger-burger-8302142/>