What Is the Least Sustainable Meat?

Discover which type of meat has the lowest sustainability rating and learn about the effects of your dietary choices on the planet.
Published:
What Is the Least Sustainable Meat?
Discover which type of meat has the lowest sustainability rating and learn about the effects of your dietary choices on the planet.
Published:
What Is the Least Sustainable Meat?
Discover which type of meat has the lowest sustainability rating and learn about the effects of your dietary choices on the planet.
Published:
Last updated:

The environmental impact of beef: why it’s the least sustainable meat

Not all foods have an equal environmental impact, and the least sustainable meats demand a lot of resources.

The meat with the most severe ecological footprint is generally beef, primarily due to its elevated production of greenhouse gases, land and water use, and the extensive resources needed to raise cattle.

A cow grazing in a barren, deforested landscape, surrounded by discarded packaging and waste

Opting for alternatives to beef can significantly reduce an individual’s carbon footprint

Yet, choosing different types of meat doesn’t necessarily guarantee sustainability, as it can still vary depending on certain factors.

Poultry, for example, typically requires fewer resources than beef or lamb, making it a more sustainable choice. However, there are still ethical concerns when consuming any meat.

Understanding meat’s environmental impact

A crowded feedlot with methane emissions and water pollution

In understanding the environmental footprint of meat, one must consider the significant role of livestock in food emissions and the varying impacts of different meat types.

The role of livestock in greenhouse gas emissions

Livestock are significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions

The carbon footprint of meat production involves:

  • Methane: A potent gas that’s produced through enteric fermentation 
  • Feed production: Requires significant amounts of water and land
  • Manure management: Produces nitrous oxide

Factors influencing the sustainability of meat

A scale weighing various meats, with the least sustainable meat being highlighted or placed at the bottom

The sustainability of meat production hinges on several environmental factors. These include land use, water consumption, and the impact on biodiversity and wildlife.

Land use and deforestation

Water use in meat production

  • High water consumption: Meat production is water-intensive, with large quantities needed for animals’ drinking, cleaning, and processing of animal products.
  • Impact on water resources: The vast amount of water use can lead to the depletion of local water resources, affecting human and ecological water needs.

Biodiversity and wildlife

  • Impact on biodiversity: Meat production can result in habitat loss, directly threatening local biodiversity, as different species lose their homes and food sources.
  • Wildlife displacement: Expanding pastures and feed crops can push wildlife out of their natural habitats, sometimes leading to conflicts with humans or the endangerment of species.

Specific meat types and sustainability

A cow and pigs stand in a field

Sustainability in meat production varies widely across different types, with beef and dairy products typically ranking high for environmental impact due to significant emissions of greenhouse gases like methane.

Beef and dairy: high environmental costs

Cattle contribute substantially to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. 

They require large amounts of feed and water, exerting pressure on natural resources. For instance, beef production is linked with deforestation and a heavy carbon footprint.

Chart showing various foods with the greenhouse gas emissions emitted per 1000 kilocalories
SourceOur World in Data

Poultry and eggs: smaller footprint

Chickens have a more efficient feed conversion rate than cattle, leading to a lower environmental impact. 

Meanwhile, poultry like chicken and turkey represents a more sustainable option within meat and dairy categories, utilising less land and producing fewer emissions.

Lamb and goat: the impact of ruminants

Like cattle, lamb and goat are ruminants that produce significant amounts of methane. 

However, they often graze on land unsuitable for crops, partially offsetting their environmental impact. Still, their emission levels remain a concern for sustainability.

Pork: weighing its consumption

While pork production is more efficient than beef, it’s not without issues. 

Pig farming can lead to water pollution due to waste runoff. Nevertheless, pork is a moderately more sustainable meat option than beef.

Plant-based meat alternatives: searching for sustainability

The search for sustainable meat options includes developing alternatives like plant-based protein sources and lab-grown meat. 

If you are looking to transition to a more sustainable diet but are not ready to give up meat entirely, you could consider:

  • Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured or cell-based meat, is produced by cultivating animal cells without raising and slaughtering animals. This method reduces the need for factory farming and its associated ethical and environmental issues.
  • Insect farming has a lower environmental impact compared to traditional livestock farming. Insects such as crickets and mealworms are protein-rich and require less land, water, and feed. They also produce fewer greenhouse gases and can be harvested more humanely.
  • Wild game meat, such as deer, elk, and bison, often have more natural and less stressful lives than factory-farmed animals. However, it is essential to consider the ecological impact of hunting and potential overhunting.
  • Animals raised on small, sustainable, and humane farms can be an ethical choice. To ensure higher welfare standards, look for certifications like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or Global Animal Partnership.
  • Plant-based meat alternatives can provide similar taste and texture experiences to meat without the ethical concerns of raising and slaughtering animals.

Health and nutritional considerations

Farm animals surrounding processed meat

Iron and protein in meat

Meat, especially red meat, has long been praised for its high iron and protein content. These nutrients are essential for maintaining muscle health and preventing anaemia.

While meat is a rich source of necessary nutrients, the meat industry’s impact on the environment has increased demand for more sustainable alternatives.

  • Iron: A crucial element for blood production found abundantly in red meat.
  • Protein: Essential for repair and growth of tissues, also plentiful in meat.

Plant-based diets

The rise of the vegan and vegetarian diet has spotlighted plant-based foods as credible, nutritionally rich substitutes for meat. 

Plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, and chickpeas are sustainable and iron-rich options. They are critical to many vegan diets when combined with vitamin C.

Sustainable meat consumption strategies

A pile of meat products

Adopting more sustainable meat consumption strategies involves eating less meat, exploring diverse protein sources, and opting for meat products with credible sustainability certifications. 

Reducing meat intake

Eating less meat is a direct strategy for mitigating the environmental impact of one’s dietary choices. The approach of “less but better” consumption of meat suggests:

  • Opting for smaller portions of meat
  • Choosing meat from sources that prioritise animal welfare and sustainable farming practices

Diversifying protein sources

Introducing a variety of protein sources reduces reliance on meat and broadens the palate. Diversity in the diet can lead to more environmentally friendly eating habits. Persons can consider:

  • Incorporating plant-based products such as legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • Including sustainable seafood options as a regular part of their diet

Labels and certification

When selecting meat products, individuals can look for labels that indicate sustainable and ethical practices. Trustworthy certifications help consumers make informed choices:

  • Seeking out “certified humane” labels that assure animal welfare standards
  • Checking for eco-labels that confirm sustainable farming practices

The role of consumer choices

A crowded grocery store aisle with various foods including meat, vegetables and fruit

Consumer decisions in the supermarket aisles play a pivotal role.

  • The decision between organic versus conventionally farmed meats can influence demand and environmentally-focused farming practices.
  • Meat alternatives, such as those produced by Beyond Meat, present a lower emission option than traditional meats.

Organic and free-range options

Purchasing organic meat shifts demand towards farming that restricts synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. 

Free range means animals can access the outdoors, aligning with natural behaviours. These options can be:

  • More expensive due to higher production costs
  • Perceived as healthier and more ethical

Consumer impact on meat production

Shoppers wield considerable influence. When they opt for more sustainable food, they push producers towards eco-friendlier methods. 

Key impacts include:

  • Reducing emissions by choosing lower-impact meats
  • Encouraging humane animal treatment and biodiversity

Every purchase is a vote for the future of food production.

Beyond the farm: transport, packaging, and retail

A truck loaded with meat crates drives past a factory emitting smoke

The journey meat takes from farm to plate is as significant as the farming practices themselves. 

Transportation and processing play significant roles in a meat’s environmental impact.

Transportation and co2 emissions

Transport is a major contributor to the greenhouse gas footprint of meat production. 

Specifically:

  • The movement of meat from slaughterhouse to retailer, including the use of refrigerated vehicles, adds considerably to its carbon footprint.
  • International shipments inflate CO2 emissions significantly, particularly for countries relying heavily on imported meats.

Sustainability in packaging and processing

Meat packaging and processing are also vital in assessing sustainability:

  • The manufacturing of packaging materials can escalate the product’s carbon footprint.
  • Technological advancements, such as biodegradable packaging options, strive to reduce this impact but are not yet universally adopted.

Global initiatives and policy

Global strategies and tailored policies are essential tools for tackling the environmental impacts of various types of meat. 

United Nations framework on climate change

The United Nations has been pivotal in framing global warming and the climate crisis as urgent issues needing collective action. 

It orchestrates international initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, including agriculture and livestock. The focus is often on:

  • Educating about the climate impact of meat production
  • Encouraging governments to implement policies for sustainable meat consumption

For instance, programmes like the international initiative launched at COP21 by the French government aim to transform the meat industry into a low-carbon, climate-resilient sector.

Beyond meat? The future of our food choices

In assessing the sustainability of meat consumption, certain types of meat emerge as less sustainable. 

  • Bovine meat, or beef, stands out due to its significant environmental footprint.
  • Beef production requires expansive land use, contributing to deforestation and biodiversity loss.
  • Regarding climate impact, beef generates more greenhouse gases per calorie than most other meats.

To navigate this complex issue, individuals may consider:

  • Reducing meat consumption in favour of plant-based foods.
  • Selecting meats with a lower environmental impact, such as poultry.

Photo of author

Author

Rob Boyle
Rob built Emission Index to collect and share data, trends and opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and expedite the energy transition.

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