Meat and Sustainability: The Facts

by NeilT, 2011-11-21

We don't tend to think much about where our food comes from anymore, and by extension how it is produced. Our food choices can have a significant impact on our total environmental footprint. There has been a lot of discussion about the transportation footprint of food, unnecessary food waste, etc, but not a lot yet about the total costs of actually producing it.

We will look at the total costs (energy, water, land, etc) of producing various foods. The purpose of this isn't to convince people to avoid the most expensive foods, rather to make an informed choice about when to eat them. For example, for someone who consumes meat at every meal of the day, on average, it would reduce overall footprint considerably to cut that back to just one or two.

Let's compare the ratio of input energy required to produce protein from various meats

  • Beef - 54:1
  • Lamb - 50:1
  • Eggs - 26:1
  • Pork - 17:1
  • Turkey - 13:1
  • Chicken - 4:1

Now let's look at the water consumption to produce one kilogram of food from various sources

  • Beef - 100,000 liters
  • Chicken - 3,500 liters
  • Soybeans - 2,000 liters
  • Rice - 1,912 liters
  • Wheat - 900 liters
  • Potatoes - 500 liters

On average, North America uses 1.4 hectares per person to feed the population. Many other parts of the world do this with 0.2 hectares per person. But, this doesn't tell the worst of the story. Let's look at the land area required to feed 100 people from various foods.

  • Beef - 100 hectares
  • Chicken - 50 hectares
  • Wheat - 6.6 hectares
  • Rice - 5.2 hectares
  • Potatoes - 4.5 hectares

On average, people in developed countries consume 8-11 ounces of meat per day. Reducing that consumption by half would effectively reduce carbon emissions (from the total lifecycle) by about three quarters of a ton. That is quite significant.

Use our Calculator: Eat less meat to find out how much your CO2 footprint can be reduced.

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