Dining on a roast dinner with meat as a centrepiece used to be a weekly event. But over the past 50 years, the demand for meat products has skyrocketed.
Nowadays, eating lamb, beef, pork, chicken, seafood and processed meat is a daily occurrence for the average family. And farming practices have been forced to adapt to meet demand.
Is there such a thing as sustainable meat? And if so, what is the most environmentally friendly meat?
The need for animals to ‘fatten up’ quickly coupled with supermarket wars driving prices down puts farmers under pressure. Cramming animals inside and introducing unnatural feed to encourage growth are common practices.
But these farming practices are not sustainable and there is a significant environmental impact of eating meat.
At some point, we’re going to have to address the problems caused by the mass production of animal products and the toll it’s taking on our environment.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s an increasing number of farmers introducing sustainable and regenerative practices into their operations. And there’s a spectrum of environmentally friendly choices you can make to fit your lifestyle and your values.
Why Animal Agriculture Is So Damaging to Our Environment
Over 900 million livestock animals are bred each year in the UK alone. This figure rises to 56 billion worldwide.
Raising this number of animals takes vast amounts of land and water at a time when both of these commodities are becoming scarce.
In turn, we see forests cut down and biodiversity shrink. And we’re seeing a growing number of indigenous communities forced out of their homes to make way for crop farming.
Meanwhile, world hunger continues to plague the planet. Yet over half the soya produced globally is used to feed animals which will end up in Western supermarkets.
Animal waste releases harmful gases such as methane which pollute our air, water and soil. And it’s thought that the farming of livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases.
That’s more carbon emissions than all the cars in the world put together. Now that’s a thought to chew on whilst walking to work with a BLT sandwich in your bag.
Which Are the Most Sustainable Meats?
If you want to change your meat eating habits, so you’re consuming the most environmentally friendly meat, you need to understand the impact of different meats.
Let’s take a look at each meat in turn, starting with lamb, the least sustainable meat.
Based on figures from the Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change and Health report, lamb has the highest carbon footprint.
Even before beginning its journey to our supermarkets, lamb produces an average of 20.44 kg of C02 emissions per kg of product.
Sheep are ruminant mammals, which means they release methane in their belches and waste. Methane is, per unit, the most harmful of greenhouse gases and even more damaging than carbon dioxide.
We should remember, however, that this figure doesn’t take into account the emissions produced post-farmgate, which includes transporting the product from the barn to your plate.
The environmental impact of this will vary widely depending on whether your lamb is homegrown or imported from New Zealand.
On average beef produces 5 kg fewer C02 emissions per kg than lamb but over three times more than pork.
Cattle farming uses billions of gallons of water and, like sheep, cows produce methane as a by-product.
Again, food miles need to be considered and the environmental impact will depend whether the beef is grown in the UK or imported.
Pork is a better option but that still doesn’t make your bacon butty eco-friendly. 4.62 kg of CO2 per kg comes from pig farming.
It’s carbon footprint rises as the meat is transported and turned into processed meat.
#2 Farmed Salmon
Waste, pesticides and other harmful chemicals leached from salmon farms pollute the sea. These harmful pollutants go on to destroy habitats and kill other underwater life.
Salmon farms are also energy intensive and produce 4.14 kg of C02 per kg of salmon.
#1 Turkey and Chicken
These birds do not produce methane and need less food and water than sheep and cows. If you want to minimise your carbon footprint without giving up meat, chicken is your best option.
Chicken produces 2.33 kg of C02 per kg of meat before transport and processing.
There are issues with slaughter and processing though. Slaughtering poultry is more energy intensive than slaughtering ruminant animals.
The manure produced from an intensive poultry farm also causes problems. It contains toxic heavy metals, pesticide residues and bacteria that can all enter local soil and waterways.
It’s also worth noting here that the stats on the sustainability of duck and goose aren’t readily available.
But these birds don’t escape the cramped conditions of factory farms. Not to mention the force feeding of some of them for foie gras.
Game Meat: Something Entirely Different and Sustainable?
Perhaps we need to change our palates and think about sustainability and meat in a different way?
What could be more sustainable than wild venison? Many areas of the UK have thriving populations of wild deer, all living in woodland with no pasture requirements.
There are also many areas where partridge and pheasant are initially farm reared and then released to the wild.
Companies such as The Wild Meat Company and Primal Meats source local wild meats, prepare them and deliver them to your door. They’re keen to take the “muck and mystery” out of preparing and eating wild game.
Could eating wild game meats be the answer to the most environmentally friendly meat question?
Could we switch to eating meat we’re not used to? If we all did, would that just transfer the problem?
Only time will tell but at the moment it’s worth considering wild game as an alternative meat.
Environmentally Friendly Is More Than Just Emissions
All too often the question of environmental friendliness becomes synonymous with emissions – greenhouse gases and carbon emissions – and focuses on discussions pertaining to climate change. And while that is a very important aspect, there is so much more that should be considered when taking a holistic look at the environment.
To truly assess how environmentally friendly meat is we also need to factor in the impact on land, water and biodiversity. The way animals are farmed, and the impact those methods have on the environment, is just as important as the carbon footprint of the meat itself.
Let’s take a look at some other ways that rearing livestock can impact the environment – both positive and negative.
Organic farming is an agricultural system that focuses on sustainability and biodiversity, and is designed to concentrate on using natural resources and prohibits the use of synthetic substances.
While not exclusively applied to animal husbandry, organic farms attempt to raise organic livestock and poultry in natural living conditions using natural, organic feed. Drugs used to speed up growth are forbidden and livestock must be raised according to a series of organic regulations in order to be certified as organic.
Under the strict organic regulations it’s widely accepted that organic farming provides environmental benefits but there are concerns as to whether animal welfare is any better than in traditional farming.
Much of the developed world relies on intensive animal farming or industrial livestock production to cater for the increasing demand for meat. Commonly referred to as “factory farming” this method of farming focuses on maximising output for the least amount of input resources, thus minimising costs and maximising profits.
This type of intensive farming is often achieved by holding large numbers of animals in feedlots, cages or pens. The animals are fed in place with very limited movement and in some cases almost no access to natural land and light.
Industrial farming often comes under criticism for the use of antibiotics and hormones, genetic breed manipulation and insufficient regard for animal welfare. Intensive farming is also cited as contributing to global issues such as decreased public health, land degradation and deforestation, increased pollution and poor water management.
Historically this intensive method of animal agriculture has been agreed as the most efficient solution for meeting the global demand for meat. However there is a new school of thought that is gaining popularity and acceptance in this area.
Where industrial farming put animals and the environment at the bottom of the list of priorities, regenerative agriculture does the exact opposite. As the name suggests, regenerative agriculture focuses on regenerating soil, biodiversity, water systems and carbon sequestration by taking a conservation and rehabilitation approach to farming.
This new way of farming has been growing in popularity across the globe over the last 20 years or so. It aims to utilise land management and animal husbandry to improve soil quality such that yields and nutrients increase – in both crops and animal products. As a result, land becomes more resilient and biodiversity thrives.
Most importantly, research suggests that regenerating land by rearing livestock in this way, increases the ability for the ground to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. This can potentially begin to reverse the effects of climate change.
Regenerative agriculture may still be in its infancy but there are plenty of reasons to believe it could provide a solution to industrial farming. One question remains however: can it scale to a level that will satisfy the world’s demand for meat?
Getting to Know Your Meat
It’s all well and good knowing that there are a series of different farming methods, but tracking down how your chosen meat was farmed is an entirely different matter. More often than not the farm, and their chosen farming methods, aren’t nicely printed on labels – though wouldn’t that be great!
Transparency is still lacking across our food systems, so if you want to know where your meat has come from and how it was farmed you’ll need to do some digging.
Thankfully there are some clued up farmers out there that understand we want to get to know our meat a little better. In the UK the Ethical Butcher are doing great work in this area; as are Field and Flower and Primal Meats.
What Can I Do to Ensure I’m Eating the Most Environmentally Friendly Meat?
Whichever meat you choose to consume there will be some negative environmental impact of eating meat.
But if you want to carry on eating meat, then you can help by eating less meat and choosing the most environmentally friendly meat when you do get your meat fix.
Leaving steak off the menu for just one day a week is equivalent to taking your car off the road for three months.
Another option is to source a sustainable meat or better still, leave red meats off your plate altogether. There are plenty of vegan alternatives hitting the market, so perhaps it’s time to experiment with some of these.
Finding Sustainable Meat in the UK
It can be difficult to find sustainable meat in the UK, especially if you’re looking in the supermarket. Not all supermarket meat is well labelled, and even if it is, some of the certifications can be a little vague.
If you aren’t willing to give up meat, then it’s best to opt for the most sustainable meat you can find that fits your budget. That might mean that you have to eat less meat, but that’s probably a good thing anyway.
In addition to the ones mentioned above here’s another couple of British companies that provide sustainable meat alternatives:
Enjoying Meat Without a Guilty Conscience
Luckily for meat lovers today’s plant-based food industry is thriving. Ethical and sustainable alternatives easily pass meaty ‘taste tests’ with flying colours. They’re affordable and now widely available in supermarkets.
Plus, we’ve recently seen the release of the B12 burger, a plant-based burger that is uncannily like the real thing. And what’s more, it’s much less damaging to our environment.
With mock meats getting better and better, everyone benefits. What’s not to like about that?
10 Practical Tips To Help You Eat Less Meat
Grab our PDF guide and reduce the amount of meat you eat.
You’ll find tons of tips to help you cut down on meat, or swap out it out entirely.