This article has been added to the investigations on “fish” due to claims about farm-raised salmon. To learn more about Salmon see the ErieWire report on the industry and those produced by Deconstructing Dinner.
What You Eat Matters
Eat Less Meat + Cheese and Buy Greener When You Do
By Kari Hamershlag, Environmental Working Group Senior Analyst
Americans’ appetite for meat and dairy – billions of pounds a year from billions of animals – takes a toll on our health, the environment, climate and animal welfare. Producing all this meat and dairy requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water. It also generates greenhouse gases and large amounts of toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean. In addition, eating large quantities of beef and processed meats increases your exposure to toxins and is linked to higher rates of health problems, including heart disease, cancer and obesity.
U.S. meat consumption has held steady for the past several years, but Americans consume 60 per cent more than Europeans (FAO 2009) and the global appetite for meat is exploding. From 1971 to 2010, worldwide production of meat tripled to around 600 billion pounds while global population grew by just 81 percent (US Census Bureau, International Data Base). At this rate, production will double by 2050 to approximately 1.2 trillion pounds of meat per year, requiring more water, land, fuel, pesticides and fertilizer and causing significant damage to the planet and global health (Elam 2006).
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can do something about it. By eating and wasting less meat (especially red and processed meat) and cheese, you can simultaneously improve your health and reduce the climate and environmental impact of food production. And when you do choose to eat meat and cheese, go greener. There are many environmental, health and animal welfare reasons to choose meat and dairy products that come from organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed animals. It may cost more, but when you buy less meat overall, you can afford to go healthier and greener.
EWG’s Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health can help you green your diet. It provides useful information about the climate,environmental and health impact of your protein choices. We hope it also inspires you to advocate for public policiesthat will make our food system healthier for our bodies and the planet, since improving our personal food choices is just one part of the solution.
WHAT WE DID: Lifecycle Assessments
To assess climate impacts, EWG partnered with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis and consulting firm, to do lifecycle assessments of 20 popular types of meat (including fish), dairy and vegetable proteins. Unlike most studies that focus just on production emissions, our assessment calculates the full “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm – from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking and, finally, disposal of unused food. The analysis also includes the emissions from producing food that never gets eaten, either because it’s left on the plate or because of spoilage or fat and moisture loss during cooking. About 20 percent of edible meat just gets thrown out (EWG/CleanMetrics analysis of 2011 USDA data) (see EWG’s Meateater’s Guide Methodology and Results / PDF).
The lifecycle assessments are based on conventional rather than pasture-based or organic systems of food production. We focused on conventionally produced, grain-fed meat because that is mostly what Americans eat. Also, we were unable to identify definitive studies and widely accepted methodologies assessing greenhouse gas emissions from pasture-raised, organic or other meat production systems that make use of more environmentally sound management practices (such as cover cropping and intensive grazing). Because climate is just one of many factors to consider, our report also assesses other environmental and health impacts of all kinds of meat and dairy, including conventional, organic and pasture-raised. The analysis included salmon and tuna but focuses mostly on livestock and much less on seafood due to data and resource constraints.
WHAT WE FOUND: All Meat is Not Created Equal
Different meats and different production systems have varying health, climate and other environmental impacts.
Lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases. With the exception of salmon, they also tend to have the worst environmental impacts, because producing them requires the most resources – mainly chemical fertilizer, feed, fuel, pesticides and water – and pound for pound, they generate more polluting manure. On the health front, the scientific evidence is increasingly clear that eating too much of these greenhouse gas-intensive meats boosts exposure to toxins and increases the risk of a wide variety of serious health problems, including heart disease, certain cancers, obesity and, in some studies, diabetes.
Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging (although a few studies of the impact on climate show mixed results for grass-fed versus confined-feedlot meat) (Pelletier 2010, Gurian-Sherman 2011). Overall, these products are the least harmful, most ethical choices. In some cases, grass-fed and pasture-raised products have also been shown to be more nutritious and carry less risk of bacterial contamination.
Greenhouse gas emissions vary depending on the quantity of chemical fertilizers, fuel and other “production inputs” used, differences in soil conditions and production systems and the extent to which best practices (cover cropping, intensive grazing, manure management, etc.) are implemented along the entire supply chain. While best management practices can demonstrably reduce overall emissions and environmental harm, the most effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts from livestock is simply to eat, waste and produce less meat and dairy.
Climate and Environmental Impacts
The chart below shows the lifecycle total of greenhouse gas emissions for common protein foods and vegetables, expressed as kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per kg of consumed product. We compared our production emissions data for the main meat proteins to several mostly peer-reviewed or government-sponsored studies in the U.S. and Europe that assessed greenhouse gas emissions from animal production systems. Only a handful of other studies showed lower emissions, and these were within 25 percent of EWG’s figures, indicating that our results may be conservative.
Figure 1. Full Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Common Proteins and Vegetables
Key Findings from the Lifecycle Assessments:
Lamb, beef and cheese have the highest emissions. This is true, in part, because they come from ruminant animals that constantly generate methane through their digestive process, called enteric fermentation. Methane (CH4) – a greenhouse gas 25 times more (CH4) potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), accounts for nearly half the emissions generated in this study’s Nebraska beef production model (see chart below). Pound for pound, ruminants also require significantly more energy-intensive feed and generate more manure than pork or chicken (see figure 2).
- Lamb has the greatest impact, generating 39.3 kg (86.4 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten – about 50 percent more than beef. While beef and lamb generate comparable amounts of methane and require similar quantities of feed, lamb generates more emissions per kilo in part because it produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight. Since just one percent of the meat consumed by Americans is lamb, however, it contributes very little to overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
- Beef has the second-highest emissions, generating 27.1 kilos (59.6 lbs) of CO2e per kilo consumed. That’s more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu. About 30 percent of the meat consumed in America is beef.
- Cheese generates the third-highest emissions, 13.5 kilos (29.7 lbs) of CO2e per kilo eaten, so vegetarians who eat a lot of dairy aren’t off the hook. Less dense cheese (such as cottage) results in fewer greenhouse gases since it takes less milk to produce it.
How feed production and manure generate greenhouse gases and harm the environment
Feed production. Most U.S. livestock are fattened on fishmeal, corn, soybean meal and other grains. Grain production, in particular, requires significant quantities of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, water and land. It takes 149 million acres of cropland, 76 million kilos (167 million lbs) of pesticides and 7.7 billion kilos (17 billion lbs) of nitrogen fertilizer to grow this feed. Fertilizer applied to soil generates nitrous oxide (N20), which has 300 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. Irrigation pumps, tractors and other farm equipment also release carbon dioxide, but in relatively small amounts. Pesticides and fertilizers often end up in runoff that pollutes rivers, groundwater and oceans. Feed crops are heavily subsidized by taxpayers through the federal Farm Bill, to the tune of $45 billion over the past 10 years. Fertilizer and pesticide production requires a significant amount of energy, but our model found that together they account for just 12 percent of the emissions from growing feed. The biggest impact is from the nitrous oxide emissions resulting from fertilizer application.
Manure: Animal waste releases nitrous dioxide and methane and pollutes our water and air, especially when it is concentrated. In 2007, U.S. livestock in confined feeding operations generated about 500 million tons of manure a year, three times the amount of human waste produced by the entire U.S. population (EPA 2007). Manure is the fastest growing major source of methane, up 60 percent from 1990 to 2008 (EPA 2010) . While manure is a valuable nutrient for plants, it can leach pollutants – including nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics and metals – into groundwater when storage facilities leak or too much is spread on farm fields. More than 34,000 miles of rivers and 216,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in the U.S. have been degraded by waste from confined feeding operations (EPA 2009). Decomposing waste releases dust, smog odors and toxic gases, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which degrade air quality and can cause itching, dizziness and discomfort to workers and nearby residents.
Most Emissions from Meat, Dairy and Fish Consumption Occur during Production
EWG’s analysis found that 90 percent of beef’s emissions, 69 percent of pork’s, 72 percent of salmon’s and 68 percent of tuna’s are generated in the production phase. In the case of beef and dairy, this is due to the high methane (CH4) emissions from the ruminants’ digestion and manure, as well as the nitrous oxide generated from growing feed. Chickens, in contrast, generate no methane and have far fewer emissions during production. In the case of farmed salmon, the primary emissions in the production phase come from feed. Emissions for farmed salmon are also high because consumers throw away a lot of what they buy. This means that a lot of additional salmon is produced for every pound that gets eaten.
Figure 2. Sources of Emissions from Beef and Chicken Production
- Just half of chickens’ emissions are generated during production. That’s because pound for pound, chickens require far less feed than hogs and beef or dairy cattle, and chickens generate no methane. However, chicken processing is more energy- and water-intensive than other meat processing.
- Sources of greenhouse gases are different for farmed and wild fish. Feed production dominates emissions from salmon farming, while diesel combustion from fishing boats accounts for most of the emissions from wild-caught fish, including salmon and tuna. Overall, canned tuna has lower emissions. This is partially due to the fact that tuna and other wild-caught fish live on food that they consume directly from the ocean, in contrast to farmed fish that are fed energy-intensive feed (such as sardines, menhaden, soybean meal and wheat) that must be grown and/or caught. Also, this analysis considered canned tuna vs. fresh (farmed) salmon, keeping tuna emissions lower because there is less waste and no cooking in the canning process.
- In contrast to meat, most of plant proteins’ emissions are generated after crops leave the farm (processing, transport, cooking and waste disposal). For example, post-farmgate emissions account for 65 percent of dry beans’ total emissions and 59 percent of lentils’, primarily because of the energy needed to cook them. Using a pressure cooker that cuts cooking time in half reduces beans’ emissions by 25 percent. Ninety percent of potato emissions occur after the crop leaves the farm, primarily from cooking.
Wasted Food is a Major Source of Emissions
EWG’s analysis found that discarded food accounts at least 20 percent on average of the emissions associated with producing, processing, transporting and consuming meat and dairy products. Reducing waste and buying only as much as you can eat is the easiest way to reduce greenhouse gas and other environmental impacts of food.
Most of the emissions attributed to waste come from producing food that is ultimately discarded – from fertilizer and pesticide production, growing feed, transportation, etc. Foods with higher waste rates such as farmed salmon (44 percent is thrown away by retailers and consumers) have much higher emissions during production since it takes a lot more salmon to produce the amount that is actually consumed. Some of the waste-related production emissions are unavoidable, such as moisture and fat loss during cooking. These must be accounted for in the lifecycle analysis, but there is very little consumers can do to minimize these losses. (See Figure 5.)
Figure 5. Production Emissions from Eaten and Wasted Meat, Eggs and Cheese
The amount of food consumers throw away varies considerably. Consumers throw out about 40 percent of the fresh and frozen fish they buy, but only 12 percent of the chicken, 16 percent of the beef, 25 percent of the pork, and 31 percent of turkey is discarded at home or in restaurants. On average, retailers throw out about 5 percent of the meat they sell.8
Waste disposal accounts for a small fraction of emissions from meat, a larger portion of emissions from plant food.
The source of these emissions is the methane produced during decomposition. In some landfills, a portion of these emissions are captured and used for energy. In EWG’s model, less than 1 percent of beef, lamb and chicken, 2 percent of pork and 3 percent of turkey and salmon emissions are attributed to the waste disposal process.
Waste disposal accounts for roughly 22 percent of broccoli’s total emissions, 20 percent of tomatoes’ and 5 percent of potatoes’.
Composting meat (at home or through a service) reduces emissions by only small amounts: less than 0.01 percent for most meats. It has a bigger impact for vegetables: 10 percent in the case of broccoli and tomatoes.
Transportation: small portion of meat and dairy’s emissions, more of vegetables’ and plant proteins’
Although transportation-related emissions don’t vary much among different kinds of food, transportation accounts for a much higher fraction of the overall footprint of vegetable proteins because they have much lower emissions overall. According to this analysis, buying locally can significantly reduce the climate impact of vegetable production (10-30 percent), but has a relatively smaller impact for meat (1-3 percent). Nevertheless, supporting local ranchers is important for other reasons.
- EWG’s analysis found that transporting animals, supplies and retail food products domestically to and from farms, slaughterhouses and stores produces only about 10 percent of meat’s carbon footprint; transportation from the processor to retail generated just 1 percent of beef’s footprint, 3 percent of pork’s and 5 percent of chicken’s and salmon’s (including shipping in the case of salmon, since most salmon is imported by boat).
- By contrast, transportation to retail generates 30 percent of tomatoes’ footprint, 23 percent of broccoli’s, 15 percent of lentils’ and tofu’s, 12 percent of nuts’, 9 percent of potatoes’ and 7 percent of eggs’.
- Buying locally can reduce the overall footprint by as much as 20 percent for broccoli and 25 percent for tomatoes; local purchasing reduces meat’s carbon footprint by just 1-3 percent.
- Emissions are much higher for airfreighted food. Cheese imported by air has a 46 percent larger footprint than domestically produced cheese. Most imported meat and dairy products, however, are shipped by sea, adding less than 1 percent to their carbon footprint.
Emissions from meat processing, including freezing and packaging, vary considerably.
Processing accounts for just 5 percent of lamb and beef’s overall carbon footprint, compared to 12 percent of pork’s and 24 percent of chicken’s.
Electricity to run the plants and pump huge quantities of wastewater is the main source of greenhouse gases from slaughterhouses. Emissions from chicken processing are relatively higher because it requires a high volume of water, and overall production emissions are lower.
Slaughterhouses dump millions of pounds of toxic pollutants – primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia – into waterways. Eight slaughterhouses are consistently among the nation’s top 20 industrial polluters, responsible for discharging 13.6 million kilos (30 million lbs) of contaminants – primarily nitrates – in 2009 (EPA 2009). Nitrates are a significant source of drinking water contamination in agricultural communities nationwide. Excessive amounts of these pollutants lead to massive fish kills and oxygen-deprived “dead zones” where no marine life can survive.
From EWG » Reducing Your Footprint Take the Meatless Monday Pledge.
Here’s how eating less meat measures up against other climate-saving actions:
Over a year:
If you eat one less burger a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time. 10
If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes. 11
If your four-person family skips steak once a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for nearly three months. 12
If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road. 13