#LoveFood - The Foodprint of animal products

Dear system change leaders,

In the spirit of shifting more and more to vegetarian menus, this month’s food newsletter continues our exploration of the ‘food print’ (the carbon footprint of food), with a focus on meat, eggs and dairy! Here are some (mind-blowing) facts and figures and a few concrete tips on how you can take simple action to mitigate your food print!

Environmental Impacts: FAO and World Bank estimates of the total emissions from global livestock production range from 14.5% to a whopping 51% of all man-made GHG emissions, if including the clearing of land to graze livestock and grow feed, keeping livestock alive, and processing and transporting the end products. This far exceeds emissions from the entire global transport sector. But it’s not just meat! You may be surprised to find that cheese produces almost double the GHG emissions of chicken (13.5 vs. 6.9 CO2 equivalent per kg) largely due to cows’ methane-producing digestion process!

Along with this carbon footprint, the production of animal products also leads to significant water and land usage. For example, the production of 1 kilogram of beef requires 15,455 L of water– equivalent to ~110 bathtubs full! And if you’re eating just one hamburger per month for a year, this already requires as much space as your 40 m2 flat! On top of that, animal products provoke the death of 56 billion farmed animals per year.

Health Impacts: A study conducted at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food estimates that economic benefits of improving diets globally, amount to 1–31 trillion US dollars in 2050 – driven by health improvements from recommended dietary shifts, which exceed the environmental benefits of the avoided damages from climate change.

A Rotten System: Agriculture receives only 4% of development banks’ mitigation financing and few countries include livestock or agriculture in their emissions reduction plans. Meanwhile, an entrenched OECD system of government subsidies for meat and dairy producers, totalling $53 billion in 2013, actually encourages growth in production, which artificially lowers prices and stimulates consumption. In 2017, a German federal environment agency study found that 90% of industry subsidies were harmful to the environment and worked against Germany’s implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement! Although a tax on animal products and the removal of artificial support to the livestock industry would compensate for climate damage and deter excessive meat consumption, governments have to navigate the intricacies of the transition for the agricultural sector and related jobs, which makes changes difficult.


What you can do

While the problem is a systemic one, the solution starts with us – one meal at a time! Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of fun and very doable options to reduce your ‘food print’ from animal products:

  • Participate in Veganuary – during any month of the year!
  • Start a vegetarian or flexitarian diet, a ‘flexible’ vegetarian diet with occasional consumption of meat
  • Take the pledge to become a ‘reducetarian’, someone who aspires to reduce their meat consumption, regardless of degree or motivation – as described in Brian Kateman’s book and Ted Talk
  • Try out Meatless Monday, launched by Paul McCartney, reducing 14% of your animal product intake
  • Go ‘Vegan before 6’, as described in Mark Bittman’s Ted Talk & book
  • Be a ‘weekday vegetarian’, as described in Graham Hill’s Ted Talk, reducing 70% of your animal product intake
  • Follow a ‘demitarian’ diet – simply cutting your current meat consumption by 50%
  • Swap out all or half the meat in your favourite recipe for plant-based proteins
  • Give healthy & delicious plant-based meat, cheese and milk alternatives a try
  • Get the veggie or vegan option at your next visit to a restaurant
  • Check out the plethora of great vegan/veggie restaurants popping up in cities all around the world

The impact: Dietary emissions would drop by 70% for vegan diets, 63% for vegetarian diets and 29% for demitarian diets. So, remember, it’s not all or nothing! You can reduce your food print one meal at a time!

Written by Rabia Abrar

Need more facts?

Here is the long version of the newsletter and a list of relevant sources:


Facts about environmental impact

In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) attributed 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions to livestock production, namely from “clearing land to graze livestock and grow feed, keeping livestock alive, and processing and transporting the end products” (Goodland and Anhang, 2009: p. 11). In 2009, the World Bank recalculated this emissions attribution, taking into account the overlooked, undercounted and misallocated emissions involved in livestock production. It produced a more accurate, yet still conservative estimate, stating that the livestock industry is responsible for 51% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (Goodland and Anhang, 2009). According to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) ‘Meat Eater’s Guide’, 13.5 kgs of CO2e are produced per kg of cheese, 39 kg for lamb, 27 kg for beef, 12 kg for pork and farmed fish (salmon), 7kg for chicken and 5kg for eggs (Hamerschlag, 2011).


Facts about Health Impacts

A study conducted at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food estimates that economic benefits of improving diets globally, amount to 1–31 trillion US dollars in 2050 (Springmann et al., 2016). Interestingly, the value of health improvements from recommended dietary shifts exceeds the environmental benefits of the avoided damages from climate change. These figures reflect the many studies which have established a direct correlation between meat consumption and non-communicable, ‘lifestyle’ diseases, specifically cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease, as well as antibiotic resistance (Forum for the Future, 2016), (Moses, 2016), (Morris et al, 2014), (Giuffrida, 2015). These diseases are common where high-meat Western diets are followed.


The Western System

In the Western agricultural system, the livestock industry has strong influence on regulation and meat holds great cultural significance, which incentivize overproduction and overconsumption (Morris et al, 2014). A study at Oxford University found that taxes of 40% on beef and 20% on milk would compensate for climate damage and deter excessive meat consumption (Carrington, 2016). Similar to the issue of smoking, taxes and/or removal of artificial support to the livestock industry would be sufficient to promote sustainable diets. One major challenge is a political desire to avoid accusations of “nanny statism”, a concern about the legitimacy of institutions intervening in individual diets (Bailey et al., 2014: p. 15). A politically-driven transition to reduced-meat diets will not come as fast as needed from the macro level. Unlocking current consumption patterns will trigger larger, macro-level policy change.

Changing Appetites: Already, there have been promising changes, especially in Germany and the UK, where 29% of households eat vegan or vegetarian meals for dinner and 40% eat less meat than before (Forum for the Future, 2016). Research shows that several factors have contributed to this cultural shift: a growing number of options in restaurants & grocery stores, desirability of alternative products and growing consumer awareness. 


Aguirre-Villegas, et al., 2011. “Sustainable Cheese Production: Understand the Carbon Footprint of Cheese”. College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Available at: http://clean-water.uwex.edu/pubs/pdf/CF-Cheese.pdf 

Bailey, R., Froggatt, A. and Wellesley, L. 2014. Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption. Chatham House, Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20141203LivestockClimateChangeBaileyFroggattWellesley.pdf

Carrington, D. 2016. Giving up beef will reduce carbon footprint more than cars, says expert. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/21/giving-up-beef-reduce-carbon-footprint-more-thancars?CMP=share_btn_fb

Forum for the Future, 2016. What is the role of plantbased foods in future diets? London: Forum for the Future. Available at: https://www.forumforthefuture.org/sites/default/files/files/Role_of_plant_based_diets_Oct16_FINAL_2(1).pdf

Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3437e/i3437e.pdf

Giuffrida, 2015. Salami causes cancer. The Local. Available at: http://www.thelocal.it/20151026/salami-causes-cancerwhos-telling-porkies

Goodland, R. and Anhang, J., 2009. Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change are…cows, pigs, and chickens? World Watch. Available at: http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

Hamerschlag, 2011. “Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change + Health”. Environmental Working Group. Online. Available at: http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/report_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf

Morris, C., Kirwan, J. and Lally, R. 2014. Less Meat Initiatives: An Initial Exploration of a Dietfocused Social Innovation in Transitions to a More Sustainable Regime of Meat Provisioning. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture, 21 (2), pp. 189–208. Available at: http://www.ijsaf.org/archive/21/2/morris.pdf

Moses, T. 2016. Stop Telling Me Not to Eat Meat. We Should All Be Flexitarians. London: The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/meat-flexitarians-vegetarians

Springmann, M., Godfray, C., Raynera, M. and Scarborough, P. 2016. Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113 (15), pp. 4146–4151. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full

Kalverkamp et al., 2014. Meat Atlas: Facts and figures about the animals we eat. Ahrensfelde: Heinrich Böll Foundation, Friends of the Earth Europe. Available at: www.foeeurope.org/meat-atlas