12 January - 20 June 2016

Measuring the carbon footprint of different protein sources

30 July 14

It has long been known that eating meat has a more significant impact on the environment than a plant-based diet; however researchers working at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Tel Aviv, and in the USA, have recently published data that analyses and orders the environmental cost of consumption for the five main sources of protein in the US: beef, pork, poultry, dairy and eggs.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, calculated the cost per gram of protein in terms of land use, irrigation water, production of greenhouse gas, and use of reactive nitrogen burdens, using data provided by the US Department of Agriculture among other sources. Several complex factors need to be taken into consideration; for example, producing sufficient feed for animals not only takes its toll by way of land use, but also through the use of nitrogen fertilizers which can harm the nearby water supplies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the calculations showed that consumption of beef had the biggest impact on the environment. Nevertheless, researchers were surprised to find that the effect was an order of magnitude larger than for the other protein sources investigated, with land requirements and water irrigation being the main differentiator. Also surprisingly, it is reported that the other sources investigated (poultry, pork, eggs and dairy) all have a similar environmental impact; it had been previously thought that the impact of dairy production was far lower.

With such dramatic findings about the environmental impact of beef consumption, the authors hope that not only will individuals' dietary choices be influenced, but also government bodies' future decisions regarding food security.[Weizmann, DW]

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