Is meat a sustainable form of agriculture

The influence of our diet on the climate

Why we have to drastically reduce the consumption of animal products

Global meat production has quadrupled over the past 50 years: almost 315 million tons in 2014 - and the trend is rising. The consequences range from climate change and the extinction of species to hunger and water scarcity.

Organic livestock farming in the Brodowin Ecovillage - Photo: NABU / Iris Barthel

In the last 50 years, global meat production has quadrupled: a good 330 million tons in 2019, in Germany everyone consumes an average of 60.5 kilograms per year. That is about twice as much as the German Nutrition Society recommends for adults. More meat than the earth can handle and more meat than is good for our bodies.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) expects an increase to 455 million tons annually by 2050. A particularly large amount of meat is consumed in the western industrialized countries. This is due to the growing prosperity in these nations, but also to the low meat prices made possible by factory farming. With the consumption of animal products, consumers nowadays inevitably accept that animals are pure production goods. This has consequences for both climate change and biodiversity.


The FAO also includes the indirect negative climate impacts of meat production in its calculations and assumes that 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to meat production.

Anyone who on an average day just covers their bread roll with Black Forest ham in the morning, eats Wiener Schnitzel in the canteen at lunchtime and goes around the corner for a burger in the evening, is often not aware that their eating behavior is part of a large global complex of problems.


It all depends on the attitude

The huge amounts of methane emitted by livestock are just a small part of this - albeit a major one. Because methane gas is far more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide: it heats the atmosphere over 20 times as much as CO2. In itself, however, the cow would not be a "climate killer" as it is often said. When kept on pasture, the carbon footprint of beef changes, as this type of husbandry can contribute to the preservation of pastures. Under meadows and pastures, especially under species-rich, carbon is stored when dead plant matter, for example roots, is converted into humus by microorganisms. This removes carbon from the atmosphere.


Rather, it is about the type of husbandry and the countless expanded factors of meat consumption and production that have to be taken into account when determining the carbon footprint of meat. These include the energy required for cooling and heating meat, the greenhouse gases that arise when the buildings are built for the breeding animals, or the transport costs for animal feed.

According to estimates by the FAO, 45 percent of the emissions from the field of cattle breeding come from the processing and production of feed and 39 percent from the digestion (enteric fermentation) of ruminants (Meat Atlas 2021).


Resource consumption for one kilogram of meat

Before an animal is on our plates as a steak or sausage, enormous amounts of resources such as land, water, energy and grain were consumed. According to the FAO, a quarter of the ice-free surface of the earth is now used for livestock farming. These include huge areas in the Amazon forest that were cut down specifically for livestock farming - and are still being cleared. The clearing of such forests poses, among other things, a great threat to biodiversity. The monocultures that arise lead to soil erosion. For example, every kilo of beef contains 6.5 kilograms of grain, 36 kilograms of roughage. In Germany, half of the harvested grain is used to feed animals. The increased demand for animal feed has already resulted in higher prices for staple foods.


According to studies, over two thirds of agricultural greenhouse gases come from animal husbandry. In order to make agriculture more climate-friendly, the production of meat and dairy products would have to be reduced, concludes Foodwatch. A demand that can hardly be enforced without the commitment of consumers.


Organic quality at an advantage

Organic farmers usually have a significantly more favorable climate footprint than their conventional colleagues: although milk and cheese in organic quality only do a little better, organic pork pollutes the climate by a third less than conventional ones. Compared to conventionally grown wheat, organic wheat produces only half of the greenhouse gases. Conclusion: Organic farming emits around a fifth less greenhouse gases than conventional farming. A considerable figure when you consider that agriculture and animal husbandry are responsible for up to seven percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in this country. In particular, the build-up of humus through a crop rotation with many different types of crops, including legumes such as beans or lentils, contributes to the positive result of organic farming. Grazing also has a positive effect.


It doesn't take much for a climate-friendly diet: Put less animal, more plant-based foods on the menu. Buy fresh products that are only slightly processed, avoid frozen food. Buy fruit and vegetables seasonally, prefer outdoor produce. Select regional products, leave food imported by plane on the supermarket shelf. And above all: do the shopping on foot or by bike.


Take a close look

Shopping trolleys with organic products - Photo: NABU / Sebastian Hennigs

But even those who take all this advice to heart cannot be sure that they automatically have the most climate-friendly food in their shopping basket. Take organic food, for example: Since local organic farmers cannot even come close to meeting demand, foreign competition is pushing its way into the market more and more from year to year. New potatoes from Egypt, plums from Chile and sunflower seeds from the People's Republic of China are also part of the range in local organic stores - no matter how devastating the climate balance is due to transport.

Take regionality, for example: A freshly picked apple from Chile that is shipped to Germany by container ship instead of by plane may perform as well as an apple from Lake Constance that has been stored in a cold store for months. Transport has less of an impact on the carbon footprint than is often assumed. The opposite applies, for example, to asparagus from Argentina, which is delivered to Germany by air: Due to transport, it pollutes the climate around 280 times more than the regionally produced variant.


Return to the Sunday roast?

So the matter is confusing. Apart from the fact that up to now there are no generally binding evaluation criteria for the harmfulness of a product to the climate, consumers can hardly be expected to understand the complex interrelationships of climate footprints when shopping on a daily basis.

Those who eat a vegetarian diet and consistently use organic products improve their personal carbon footprint by 60 percent, says the Munich-based nutritionist Karl von Koerber. You don't have to go that far, but a return to the Sunday roast and an orientation towards Mediterranean eating habits is recommended. That is healthy, beneficial to the climate and does not mean a loss of quality of life.


Food for climate protection

  • Be more conscious about meat as a food - be aware of where it comes from, how it was produced and the consequences of its production.

  • Try to eat less meat and cook mostly vegetarian.

  • If you eat meat, treat yourself to organic meat: the production of organic pork requires 40 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional production. Meat and milk from grazing can even be produced in an almost climate-neutral way if the nutrients are circulated.

  • Also, do without other animal products, such as dairy products, from time to time.

  • Regional instead of global: Aircraft are the worst climate killer of all. The purchase of regional products, on the other hand, supports the circular economy in the home region.

  • Seasonally instead of under glass: Seasonally harvested fruit and vegetables have a far less impact on the climate than vegetable foods that grow in a heated greenhouse out of season.

  • Fresh instead of frozen: Due to the way they are produced, fresh vegetables pollute the climate three times less than vegetables from the freezer.

  • Raw food instead of ready-made pizza: the more processed a food is, the more climate-damaging its production.

  • Lean quark instead of camembert: the fatter a dairy product, the worse its carbon footprint.

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