Climate explained: how the climate impact of beef compares with plant-based alternatives



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Alexandra Macmillan, University of Otago and Jono Drew, University of Otago

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I am wondering about the climate impact of vegan meat versus beef. How does a highly processed patty compare to butchered beef? How does agriculture of soy (if this is the ingredient) compare to grazing of beef?

Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, two of the biggest players in the rapidly expanding meat alternatives market, claim their vegan burger patties (made primarily from a variety of plant proteins and oils) are 90% less climate polluting than a typical beef patty produced in the United States.

The lifecycle assessments underpinning these findings were funded by the companies themselves, but the results make sense in the context of international research, which has repeatedly shown plant foods are significantly less environmentally damaging than animal foods.

It is worth asking what these findings would look like if the impacts of plant-based meats had been compared with a beef patty produced from a grass-fed
cattle farm, as is the case in New Zealand, instead of an industrialised feedlot operation that is commonplace in the United States.




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Climate explained: will we be less healthy because of climate change?


A New Zealand perspective

Building on international research mainly carried out in the Northern Hemisphere, we recently completed a full assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different foods and dietary patterns in New Zealand.

Despite dominant narratives about the efficiency of New Zealand’s livestock production systems, we found the stark contrast between climate impacts of plant and animal foods is as relevant in New Zealand as it is elsewhere.

For example, we found 1 kilogram of beef purchased at the supermarket produces 14 times the emissions of whole, protein-rich plant foods like lentils, beans and chickpeas. Even the most emissions-intensive plant foods, such as rice, are still more than four times more climate-friendly than beef.

The New Zealand food emissions database: comparing the climate impact of commonly consumed food items in New Zealand.
Drew et al., 2020

The climate impact of different foods is largely determined by the on-farm stage of production. Other lifecycle stages such as processing, packaging and transportation play a much smaller role.

Raising beef cattle, regardless of the production system, releases large quantities of methane as the animals belch the gas while they chew the cud. Nitrous oxide released from fertilisers and manure is another potent greenhouse gas that drives up beef’s overall climate footprint.

Climate impact of the New Zealand diet

Everyday food choices can make a difference to the overall climate impact of our diet. In our modelling of different eating patterns, we found every step New Zealand adults take towards eating a more plant-based diet results in lower emissions, better population health and reduced healthcare costs.

Climate impact of different dietary scenarios, as compared with the typical New Zealand diet.
Drew et al., 2020

The graph above shows a range of dietary changes, which gradually replace animal-based and highly processed foods with plant-based alternatives. If all New Zealand adults were to adopt a vegan diet with no food wastage, we estimated diet-related emissions could be reduced by 42% and healthcare costs could drop by NZ$20 billion over the lifetime of the current New Zealand population.




Read more:
A vegan meat revolution is coming to global fast food chains – and it could help save the planet


Redesigning the food system

The current global food system is wreaking havoc on both human and planetary health. Our work adds to an already strong body of international research that shows less harmful alternatives are possible.

As pressure mounts on governments around the world to help redesign our food systems, policymakers continue to show reluctance when it comes to supporting a transition toward plant-based diets.

Such inaction appears, in large part, to be driven by the propagation of deliberate misinformation by powerful food industry groups, which not only confuses consumers but undermines the development of healthy and sustainable public policy.

To address the multiple urgent environmental health issues we face, a shift towards a plant-based diet is something many individuals can do for their and the planet’s health, while also pressing for the organisational and policy changes needed to make such a shift affordable and accessible for everyone.The Conversation

Alexandra Macmillan, Associate Professor Environment and Health, University of Otago and Jono Drew, Medical Student, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What’s your beef? How ‘carbon labels’ can steer us towards environmentally friendly food choices



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Delicious, nutritious… and emissions-intensive.
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Adrian R. Camilleri, University of Technology Sydney; Dalia Patino-Echeverri, Duke University, and Rick Larrick, Duke University

What did you have for dinner last night? Might you have made a different choice if you had a simple way to compare the environmental impacts of different foods?

Most people do not recognise the environmental impact of their food choices. Our research, published in Nature Climate Change, shows that even when consumers do stop to think about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their food, they tend to underestimate it.

Fortunately, our study also points to a potential solution. We found that a simple “carbon label” can nudge consumers in the right direction, just as nutrition information helps to highlight healthier options.




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Most food production is highly industrialised, and has environmental impacts that most people do not consider. In many parts of the world, conversion of land for beef and agricultural production is a major cause of deforestation. Natural gas is a key input in the manufacture of fertiliser. Refrigeration and transportation also depend heavily on fossil fuels.

Overall, food production contributes 19-29% of global greenhouse emissions. The biggest contributor is meat, particularly red meat. Cattle raised for beef and dairy products are major sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Meat production is inherently inefficient: fertiliser is used to grow feedstock, but only a small portion of this feed becomes animal protein. It takes about 38 kilograms of plant-based protein to produce 1kg of beef – an efficiency of just 3%. For comparison, pork has 9% efficiency and poultry has 13%.

We could therefore cut greenhouse emissions from food significantly by opting for more vegetarian or vegan meals.

Food for thought

To find out whether consumers appreciate the environmental impact of their food choices, we asked 512 US volunteers to estimate the greenhouse emissions of 19 common foods and 18 typical household appliances.

We told the respondents that a 100-watt incandescent light bulb turned on for 1 hour produces 100 “greenhouse gas emission units”, and asked them to make estimates about the other items using this reference unit. In these terms, a serving of beef produces 2,481 emission units.

As shown below, participants underestimated the true greenhouse gas emissions of foods and appliances in almost every case. For example, the average estimate for a serving of beef was around 130 emission units – more than an order of magnitude less than the true amount. Crucially, foods were much more underestimated than appliances.

Consumers consistently underestimate the greenhouse emissions of food.
Camilleri et al. Nature Climate Change 2018

Improving consumers’ knowledge

People often overestimate their understanding of common everyday objects and processes. You might think you have a pretty solid idea of how a toilet works, until you are asked to describe it in exact detail.

Food is a similarly familiar but complex phenomenon. We eat it every day, but its production and distribution processes are largely hidden. Unlike appliances, which have energy labels, are plugged into an electrical outlet, emit heat, and generally have clear indications of when they are using electricity, the release of greenhouse gases in the production and transportation of food is invisible.

One way to influence food choice is through labelling. We designed a new carbon label to communicate information about the total amount of greenhouse emissions involved in the production and transport of food.

Drawing on knowledge from the design of existing labels for nutrition, fuel economy and energy efficiency, we came up with the label shown below. It has two key features.

First, it translates greenhouse emissions into a concrete, familiar unit: equivalent number of light bulb minutes. A serving of beef and vegetable soup, for example, is roughly equivalent to a light bulb turned on for 2,127 minutes – or almost 36 hours.

Second, it displays the food’s relative environmental impact compared with other food, on an 11-point scale from green (low impact) to red (high impact). Our serving of beef and vegetable soup rates at 10 on the scale – deep into the red zone – because beef production is so emissions-intensive.

In the can – a carbon label for beef and vegetable soup reveals its high environmental impact.

To test the label, we asked 120 US volunteers to buy cans of soup from a selection of six. Half of the soups contained beef and the other half were vegetarian. Everyone was presented with price and standard nutritional information. Half of the group was also presented with our new carbon labels.

Volunteers who were shown the carbon labels chose significantly fewer beef soup options. Importantly, they also had more accurate perceptions of the relative carbon footprints of the different soups on offer.




Read more:
You’ve heard of a carbon footprint – now it’s time to take steps to cut your nitrogen footprint


Figuring out the carbon footprint of every food item is difficult, expensive, and fraught with uncertainty. But we believe a simplified carbon label – perhaps using a traffic light system or showing relative scores for different foods – can help inform and empower consumers to reduce the environmental impact of their food choices.The Conversation

Adrian R. Camilleri, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Technology Sydney; Dalia Patino-Echeverri, Associate professor, Duke University, and Rick Larrick, Professor of Management and Organizations, Duke University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nicaragua: Indio Maiz Biological Reserve – Illegal Beef Farming


The link below is to an article reporting on illegal beef farming in the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve in Nicaragua.

For more visit:
https://news.mongabay.com/2017/09/nicaraguan-beef-raised-illegally-in-biological-reserve-mostly-exported/