To meat, or not to meat, that's the ecological question

  • Living
  • Saturday, 03 Jun 2023

Meat substitutes, in general, have a better carbon footprint than the original products from beef, pork or poultry. — dpa

Be it sausage, gyros or a schnitzel – for more and more meat dishes these days there is a vegetarian alternative.

Substitute products made from soy, seitan and the like are now increasingly in stock at almost every supermarket. For consumers, it is not only the welfare of animals that is decisive when opting for plant-based items, but also concern about the climate and the environment.

That’s because meat, especially from beef cattle, is regarded as a climate-killer. But what about the carbon dioxide (CO2) footprint of the often intensively processed meat substitute products? And how can consumers assess the factors when trying to protect the climate?

Climate-killing cattle

The German Environment Agency (UBA) calculates the CO2 footprint for meat and meat-substitute products and has came up with some clear-cut results: Whereas the production of 1kg of a substitute made from soya sent 2.8kg of climate warming CO2 into the atmosphere, the figure for beef was more than 10 times that, at 30.5kg.

Likewise, the figures for pork (4.1kg) and poultry (4.3kg) were clearly worse than for soy-based substitutes. “It’s proven that meat production damages the environment and contributes to global warming,” UBA president Dirk Messner said.

Keeping things in perspective

What must be kept in mind is that the figures are averages. They provide just a rough orientation, but in individual cases the climate balance data might be completely different. And this is precisely what makes things difficult for consumers who do not wish to unnecessarily burden the climate when they go shopping.

”Opting for an substitute meat or dairy product is, as a rule, more climate-friendly than choosing the original product,” says Saskia Vetter of the consumer affairs office of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. But all the same, factors such as the transportation route, processing methods and storage also play a role.

”Roughly speaking, the more steps there are in the processing and transport, the worse it is for the climate,” Vetter said. Therefore natural products as tofu, tempeh or lupin flour compare especially favourably. For the climate it would be best to replace meat with locally-grown fruits, vegetables and legumes.

Vegan wins against vegetarian

Meat versus meatless – this is one question. But researchers at Germany’s ecology think tank Öko-Institut have also looked at the issue of how a vegan diet compares to a vegetarian one. Those who abstain from meat – vegetarians – are reducing greenhouse gases by one-fourth. But those on a vegan diet – meaning no animal-derived food such as dairy products and eggs – are cutting greenhouse emissions by 53%. Which means, those who proceed from vegetarian to vegan can clearly improve their carbon footprint.

Which alternative is the best?

Both the Öko-Institut and the UBA see soy as the most climate-friendly meat substitute, closely followed by insect-based alternatives. On the other hand, the Öko-Institut gives poor marks to laboratory-grown meat.

”Comparing the potential climate impact of the substitute products, plant-based meat substitutes are generally even more favourable than animal-based products,” notes Florian Antony of the Öko-Institut.

This means that meat substitutes made from grain, soy or peas outperform those made from eggs.

However, as is so often the case with soy, it depends on the specific conditions, notes the Öko-Institut. If rainforests have to give way to soy fields, as is the case in Brazil, it is devastating for climate balance. For Europeans, at least, this is not an issue since soy for local meat substitutes is grown on the continent.

Better to have apples from New Zealand than from a refrigerated warehouse?

Meat-substitute products are trending, but are often more expensive. Vetter says “the political sector could, through reducing value-added taxes, create an incentive for healthier and more climate-friendly nutrition.”

In Germany, basic foodstuff like milk and meat are taxed at just 7%, while meat-substitute items are subjected to the full 19%. Sarah Kuehl, who studies the issue of food and climate at Goettingen University, says that another incentive could be labels geared to climate-conscious customers. “Different studies show that consumers can only poorly estimate the climate balance of food items,” she said.

If there was exact data about emissions given for each product, it would help customers greatly, Kuehl added. For, even fruit and vegetables from the local region are not always the best choice. “If for example, regional apples have been stored in a refrigerated warehouse for a year, then the climate balance might just be worse than for apples from New Zealand.” – dpa

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meat , climate


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