Study Shows That Even The "Greenest" Meat Is Worse For Climate Than Worst Plant-Based

January 7, 2021

“I’m buying and eating far less meat than I used to. These days, I treat myself to a steak once every couple weeks or so from a local, organic butcher.”

Various iterations of these words have been spoken to me by friends and family fairly consistently over the last few years. These people, like me, are worried about climate change and taking ownership of their carbon footprints (meaning: how much a person directly contributes to climate change) in their own way.

These are followers of the “reducetarian diet” (whether they realize there’s a name for it or not), which essentially advocates for a global reduction in the consumption of animal products. It’s tricky because yes, of course, the world would be a better place if factory farms did not exist, everyone shopped locally, and animal products were thought of as luxuries to indulge in, rather than essentials to be served on every plate. Most of us wouldn’t argue with that. Granted, we follow vegan or vegetarian diets for different reasons and if your ethos is that nothing conscious and sentient should be killed, then you might not be able to see this middle ground. But for those of us who choose not to eat meat for a complex stew of ethical and environmental reasons, we’re generally happy with any progress in the right direction. We must look back at our own journeys and realize—when we get off our high horses—that we too ate meat at one point in time, before the evidence convinced us otherwise.

A new study published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, has thrown a wrench in the works. Scientists from several universities in Germany have found that even the greenest, happiest, organic, grass-fed meat products are still worse for the climate than the very worst vegan options: “The external costs of organic plant-based products are clearly the lowest (0.02€/kg product). External costs for conventional plant-based products are about twice as high (0.04€/kg product), although still relatively low compared with the other two broad categories [dairy and animal-based]. This shows that even the animal-based product emitting the lowest rate of GHG within its broad category causes higher external costs than the plant-based product emitting the highest rate of GHG emissions within its broad category.” So, your plastic-packaged tofu shipped in from Borneo where lush, verdant rainforest was torn down to make room for a soy plantation: still better than a burger made from a cow that ate grass and frolicked with your dogs in the backyard. That kind of blows my mind, but this is why we need to shift our conversations in 2021.

It’s complicated, right? Because we need to encourage anyone choosing to reduce their consumption of animal products by praising this good behavior. And yes, choosing local and grass-fed will always be a better option than antibiotic-laden and factory-farmed. But this isn’t enough if we’re to combat the climate crisis. Not with the sheer number of us on the planet convincing some people  not to even have children. This has been shown to be one of the best things we can do for the climate, though none of us can encroach on another’s biological drive to produce offspring – hence the complication. It gives me a headache just thinking about it; I don’t know about you?

Children aside, one of the most impactful ways we can reduce our carbon footprint is by cutting out meat and dairy. Scientists from the University of Oxford found that removing these two can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by about 73%, revealing that these two industries combined create about 60% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions while providing less than 20% of the world’s calories. That’s staggering, but it’s a real, tangible step that most people can take to “do their bit,” so to speak: opting for a meat-free diet.

Now, there is a caveat. It’s a privilege to be able to choose what one eats for dinner each night. A privilege not afforded to all. This is where intersectionality comes in. Where there’s wealth, there are choices. And it’s up to those with this ability to choose between meat and alternative options to select the latter. Those unable to make this choice should not be blamed, or held responsible for systemic issues inflicted on them by a society not designed to ensure their wellbeing in the first place.

Of course, it’s not solely the responsibility of the individual to save the world. Governments around the globe must each do their part to rein in the wastefulness of our most polluting industries, including fossil fuels, fast fashion, and factory farming, to name but a few. Did you know that a handful of companies are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions? That’s simply unacceptable.

We all have our limits. Our hard “no’s” on what we’re willing to compromise on, for the ways they threaten our happiness or quality of life. Giving up meat is less of a sacrifice for some than others and I have a lot of respect for those taking other steps to combat their carbon footprint instead, such as commuting to work sans gasoline, buying exclusively secondhand, installing solar panels, and ditching air travel. How can a strict vegan who drives a gas-guzzler and flies out of town every couple of weeks (they exist) criticize that?

But if your priority is climate change, consider this additional information that will help you be better informed while having difficult conversations. These most recent findings put the urgency of cutting back meat consumption into perspective. While organic products are beneficial in many ways, including a reduction in chemicals including harsh pesticides which are linked to cancer and water pollution, when it comes to carbon footprints, it turns out that there isn’t much difference.

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Photo: Luca Basili on Unsplash

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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