EWG Meat Eater's Guide Analyzes Carbon Footprint of 20 Popular Types of Meat

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EWG Meat Eater's Guide Analyzes Carbon Footprint of 20 Popular Types of Meat

By Meghan Joyce on This Dish Is Veg, July 2011

Do you love the planet but also love meat? Then check out the Environmental Working Group's 2011 Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health. With the help of environmental analysis firm CleanMetrics, the EWG assessed the "cradle-to-grave" carbon footprint of 20 popular types of meat, fish, dairy, and vegetable sources of protein. The study includes the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced (non-organic) meat at every stage of production, from the growing of animal feed to the disposal of unused food.

The EWG found that lamb, beef, cheese, and pork generate the most greenhouse gases (mostly methane and nitrous oxide). Yes, cheese. So "vegetarians who eat dairy aren't off the hook." Instead of these high-impact foods, opt to get your protein from lentils, tofu, beans or peanut butter; these foods have the least greenhouse gas emissions. An appealing infographic demonstrates the carbon footprint of all the foods analyzed, in terms of car miles driven per 4 oz. consumed.

From Environmental Working Group Report:

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.