Best Meat to Eat for the Environment

Sizing up some cattle at the National Western Stock Show.

Sizing up cattle at the National Western Stock Show.

What is the “best” meat to eat for the environment? My family has been having this discussion lately. If you’ve previously read anything about this, you’d know that beef has the worst impact on the environment. Well, does it really? Health, ethics, religion, proximity, cost, and availability all weigh into our decision to eat meat. Despite being an environmental professional, I previously gave the environmental impact of meat very little thought. This is despite years of research on the topic. Mainly because I like to eat meat.

Here is a summary of the environmental impacts of eating our most common meats – beef, chicken, pork and fish/seafood. This is not my research and it is not comprehensive of all the available information or environmental impacts. Think of it as the Cliffs Notes version of a lot of meat research. So let’s take a look at, What Meat to Eat? I’ll start with a few statistics concerning the overall environmental impact of eating meat.

  • 40% of the world’s land surface and 47% of the US’s land is used to raise livestock.
  • A University of Chicago study concluded that switching from a standard American diet to a vegan diet is more effective in the fight against climate change than switching from a standard American car to a hybrid.
  • Lamb produces more greenhouse gases than any other meat. I didn’t consider lamb here because it’s produced on a smaller scale than the others.

1. Beef

  • Water: Producing beef requires 11 times more irrigation water than any other meat. Producing 1 pound of beef requires a range between 1,800 to over 4,000 gallons of water.
  • Land Use: Beef requires 28 times more land the other meats.
  • Greenhouse Gases (GHS): Beef has the highest GHG emissions with 27 kg CO2-eq/kg. That is more than double pork, the second most meat on this list.
  • One of the reasons beef produces more GHS is due to the methane produced by their digestive systems. (Yes, this means from cow burp and poop.)
  • This statistic jumped out at me: If you eat one less burger a week, it’s the GHG equivalent of taking your car off the road for 320 miles.
  • From an environmental impact, it’s beef versus all the other meats. If you want to conserve land and water and reduce GHGs, don’t eat beef.

2. Chicken/Poultry

  • Water: 1 pound of chicken requires 500 gallons of water.
  • GHG: Produces 6.9 kg CO2-eq/kg. This is more than 3 times less than beef.
  • Fossil fuels: Producing a calorie of chicken protein requires 5.6 calories of fossil fuels, compared with reported figures of 20 to 40 for beef.
  • Less water, less land, less GHG, and less toxic than most fish, therefore chicken is your best meat choice for the environment.

3. Pork

  • Water: It takes 600-700 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of pork. That is the second most water of the meats on this list. It’s still less than 3 times the amount of beef.
  • GHG: Produces 12 kg CO2-eq/kg, which is less than half of beef, but more than chicken.
  • The average American switching to pork from beef would reduce the equivalent of about nine days worth of the nation’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Fish/Seafood

  • The GHG emissions of fish production and transportation is much less than the land-based meats.
  • The two main environmental problems with fish are overfishing and the toxins that can accumulate in their bodies.
  • Toxins: There is a wide range of toxicity based on the type and size of the fish and where and how the fish was raised. The most common toxin found in fish is mercury. Others include PCBs, pesticides and herbicides The general rule of thumb is, the bigger the fish (tuna, salmon, swordfish, etc.), the more toxins have a chance to accumulate in its body.
  • Here are a couple guides on the toxic levels in fish, Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish and Seafood Survival Guide.
  • One example: farmed salmon has 16 times the PCBs than wild salmon, 4 times the level of beef, and 3.4 times the amount in other seafood.
  • Pollutants (positive): Catching and raising fish does not pollute our waterways with fertilizers or pesticides. Although, when these pollutants get into our water from agriculture and other meat production, fish can absorb them into their bodies.
  • Overfishing: This damages the ecosystems and stresses waterways and oceans. Nearly 80% of the world’s fisheries are fully- to over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse. 
  • Here is a good guide to sustainable, responsible fish eating, No Fish, Go Fish: A Guide to Responsible Eating.

If you thought the worst meat choice was beef, you’d be right, sort of. For climate change and land and water resources, beef is by far the worst. But like all environmental issues, this topic is complex. For example, let’s look at farmed salmon versus beef. The land and water use of salmon is nothing compared to beef. The salmon produces hardly any GHGs compared to beef. But the farmed salmon could be loaded with mercury and is an overfishing offender. You have to make the decision of what’s better for the environment and you – our changing climate or poisoning yourself.

Eating sustainably raised fish and grass-feed beef can be beneficial to the environment. Well managed cattle ranches can enhance the grasses and improve the soil. Both of which can sequester huge amounts of carbon, which can reduce GHGs. Unfortunately at our current rate of beef consumption, the amount of land needed to sustainably raise all this grass-fed beef would probably be more than the current land use. 

In my opinion, one of the biggest advances in the environmental field over the past 15 years is understanding the connection between the production of food, our health, and a healthy environment. Based on the current research, chicken and sustainably raised, low-toxic fish are your best options for What is the Best Meat to Eat for the Environment?

Links and References

  1. The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production.
  2. Environmental impact of meat production.
  3. Meat and the Environment.
  4. Growing greenhouse gas emissions due to meat production.
  5. Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change and Health.
  6. The Environmental Impact of Meat.
  7. What’s the Real Cost of Your Steak?
  8. Beef Pollutes More Than Pork, Poultry, Study Says.
  9. How does water does it take to grow a hamburger?
  10. Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish.
  11. Seafood Survival Guide.
  12. In Defense of the Cow: How Eating Meat Could Help Slow Climate Change. 
  13. Overfishing
  14. No Fish, Go Fish: A Guide to Responsible Eating.