Red Meat Climate Change

(Updated May 2022)

Quick Meat Impact Statistics

  • What are the most consumed meats in the world?  Chicken is the most consumed meat in the world, followed by pork and then beef to round out the top three.
  • What meat has the least environmental impact? The production of chicken has the least environmental impact of all meat sources.
  • What meat has the most environmental impact? Beef has the highest environmental impact of all meat sources.
  • What is the environmental impact of meat production? Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • How does the production of plant based foods affect the environment? Plant based food has an environmental impact that is typically up to 50 times smaller than that of animal products.
  • Imitation beef products like Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger create around 5 percent of the emissions of animal meat.
  • What is the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of food? The best way to shrink food’s carbon footprint is to rely less on animal products and depend more on plant based foods.
  • In the United States, agriculture -including all livestock practices and crop production- only accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Beef only contributes to 2.2 % of US emissions according to the EPA. 
  • Having adopted technology and more sustainable farming practices, US Farmers and Ranchers contribute significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than farmers in other parts of the world.
  • The United States contributes to 15% of the global carbon dioxide emissions, China contributes 30%.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions make up 81% of greenhouse gases.

Meat Environmental Impact Statistics

United States Greenhouse Gas Emissions:

In the United States, agriculture -including all livestock practices and crop production- only accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Transportation - 25%
  • Electricity - 27%
  • Industry - 22%
  • Commercial & residential - 12%
  • Livestock agriculture accounts for 4.2 % of greenhouse gas in the United States
  • Beef contributes to 2.2 % of US emissions according to the EPA. 

Note: These stats don’t account for how natural processes like photosynthesis offset the carbon emissions. The EPA estimates that land use, land-use change, and forestry in the United States offsets around 12% of these emissions. That means these numbers are even less than what is reported.

US Farmers and Ranchers contribute significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than their counterparts around the world, thanks to technology and sustainable farming practices.

  • Beef GHG today have declined 8% since 1990
  • Swine GHG today have decreased 18% since 1990
  • Dairy GHG today have decreased 25% since 1990

In terms of the global scale, China is the biggest contributor of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels worldwide at 30%. 

  • United States 15%
  • EU 9%
  • India 7%
  • Russian Federation 5%
  • Japan 4%
  • Other 3-%

Methane only accounts for 10% of Greenhouse Gas emissions worldwide. 

  • Carbon Dioxide 81% 
  • Methane 10% 
  • Nitrous Oxide 7% 
  • Fluorinated Gases - 3%

Methane is emitted during production and the transportation of coal, natural gas, and oil. It also comes from livestock, agriculture practices and organic waste decay. 

Rather than reducing meat consumption, better farming practices will help offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Does eating meat really affect the environment? 

The short answer: sort of. While ALL agricultural industry in the United States accounts for only 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, beef only contributes to 2.2%. But we can’t just take that statistic and demonize an entire industry without looking at the bigger picture. Let’s take a step back.

Consider this, everything we do affects the environment. Eating meat or eating plants will have an effect on the environment, but on a global scale, food production is only a small piece of the pie. Burning fossil fuels is the single biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.

Beef and lamb get a bad rap for being the “worst” animals for the environment, in part because their production produces more methane than other animals. This makes perfect sense, but not because of anything humans are doing, but because cows and lambs are ruminant animals.

Ruminant animals have 4 compartments to their stomach. They chew their food, swallow it, burp it up, chew again, and repeat. This is part of their digestive process, and every time they burp, methane is released. Other ruminant animals include goats, buffalo, deer, elk, giraffes and camels.

Modern farming practices use nitrogen based fertilizers in order to get their crops to grow. The production of a single crop without letting the land rest, like corn and soybeans, also affects the health of the soil. While much of greenhouse gas emissions are broken down in the atmosphere, methane is also able to break down in soils that haven’t been fertilized with ammonium-based nitrogen fertilizers. Cattle that are raised in areas of well cared for land produce no more to the atmosphere than what plants can photosynthesize.

Also consider the alternative to no one eating meat and switching to plants. In this scenario, all people consume plants or plant based products, and since we’d have to produce more plants (probably soybeans), this might result in clearing away more forests for farmland, devastating the natural biodiversity and contributing to extinction of animal species. Not to mention, eliminating natural grasses and trees is the last thing you want to do, since those tend to get rid of CO2. This scenario is not sustainable, nor is it ethical.

Farmland for crops is not available worldwide, there are areas of the world where it’s easier to grow animals for consumption than it is to grow vegetables. Consider the desert climates where farmland is scarce and crops won’t grow, but meat animals can exist on the grasses that grow naturally and provide a dense calorie source in return. There are some places in the world that if they stopped eating meat, they would starve to death. 

What is the biggest cause of global warming?

Burning fossil fuels is the single biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, since it emits the most CO2.

Red Meat Climate Change

Through the current pandemic, meat prices have soared, and yet beef consumption doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Global beef demand continues to rise, and red meat is a large percentage of meat produced on grazing land. Livestock production has been linked to potent greenhouse gas, affecting global emissions and global warming.

Eating beef has become ingrained in the American culture with images of cowboys cattle farming and sunsets with grazing animals ahead of a mountainous backdrop. American agricultural production is entrenched in livestock production by those who live to eat meat.

There's of course the other side of the coin, where beef production is seen as the enemy due to the effect of powerful greenhouse gas emissions on global climate. A vegan diet is promoted by those who are against eating meat and want others to stop eating meat as well. Both climate scientists and environmentalists are concerned about food production and the result of climate change as a result of beef production.

Beef consumption drives beef production which in turn finds a global population looking for ways to curb climate change. While developing countries and many rich countries point to beef consumption as a leading cause of global warming, the answer becomes murky when compared to greenhouse gasses emitted from burning fossil fuels.

Conclusion: 

Meat and the environmental impact is a complex issue, to be sure. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we can do our small part with what we know.

Here’s what we can probably all agree on for a better planet: implement sustainable farming practices, ensure the humane treatment of animals, buy from a local farmer, and maybe eat a salad instead of a steak once or twice a week. This is better for your health, too! While livestock and agriculture do contribute to greenhouse gases, in the global scope of things, there are bigger fish to fry. Hey, a fish fry…. Not a bad idea. 

Meat Environmental Impact Statistics


Resources and Downloads

Data Sources

  • meatinstitute.org
  • theconversation.com
  • epa.gov
  • sustainablefoodtrust.org