Category: Agriculture

The geography and complexities of ‘meat’ carbon footprints

Most of us have heard the term, carbon footprint. It is used to measure the total greenhouses gases directly and indirectly attributed to an individual, organisation or product. The carbon footprint includes all greenhouses gases, such as methane and (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O). To be able to compare them on a like-for-like basis, CO2e is calculated by multiplying the emissions of each by its 100 year global warming potential (GWP) giving the CO2 Eq figure

In the field of sustainable diets, we refer to the CO2 Eq of beef, lamb, pork etc. which allows one to quantify and compare the carbon footprint of eating, for example a kilo of beef versus a kilo of chicken. However, a quick glance at the literature and one soon sees the wide variation and difference in CO2-eg figures for products. Why is this the case? Why does one paper suggest the CO2 of beef is 17.4 CO2-Eq per kg of beef [1] and another gives a figure of 46.2 C02-Eq per kg of beef [2].

It all depends on how the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) was conductedBox1 (the method used to quantify the carbon footprint of a product from cradle to grave for example, it looks at all inputs into ‘making’ the product – See Box 1.)

For example, the LCA boundary for beef in one study may only assess the emission from ‘cradle to farm gate’ thereby excluding all emissions post farm gate like energy associated with slaughter, transport, refrigeration and packaging. Another study may define its ‘functional unit’ of measurement as the CO2-Eq per LIVE weight of beef (excluding slaughter, transport etc.) or CO2-Eq per carcass weight (including slaughter, transport etc.) It may or may not account for associated land-use change (LUC) in beef production. For all these reason, when one wishes to compare carbon footprints they must acknowledge and account for the variations in LCA methods. As such, comparability of meat carbon footprints can be marred by a lot uncertainties [3] and caution should be taken when comparing one countries beef carbon footprint to another.

This was one of the greatest challenges of my thesis, choosing which carbon footprint to use for ‘meat’. As you can see from the below graphs, the CO2-Eq figures vary by geography, by LCA system boundaries and characterisation factors. The carbon footprint of beef can also vary based on the production system, for example was the beef apart of a pasture, organic or feedlot production system.



  • Source: Authors Own


It is imperative that we develop a methodology to allow for comparsions on ‘meat’ carbon footprints and its good to see discussions on the need to harmonise LCA methods and approaches have already begun

Despite the geography, complexities and difference in the carbon footprint of ‘meat’ products – one message is clear, beef has the highest CO2-Eq and as such, the highest environmental and climate impact [2-5]. As a result, the need to reduce consumption is vital if we are to stay within the 2c target agreed this year at the UNFCCC Paris meeting.

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“How does agriculture change our climate” – New Report from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota

I highly recommend that you take 10 minutes to read and browse through this excellent report from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. It gives a fantastic ‘round-up’ of current knowledge on the complex, multifaceted and interconnected issue of climate change, agriculture and food nutritional security.


The ‘CCAFS’ problem

Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Nutritional Security (CCAFS) InstagramCapture_edc7864e-8219-4452-8174-4814defe6c31

Climate change impacts agriculture and consequently food nutritional security. Moreover, agriculture impacts climate change, contributing 35% of anthropogenic CO2 [1] thereby constraining the ability of agriculture to meet projected demand to 2050 [2]. Agricultural production therefore finds itself under increasing pressure to meet the food demands of a growing population as well as reduce its impact on the landscape, environment and climate

The convergence of a rising world population, expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, and the onset of climate change means humanity is facing perhaps its greatest challenge [3]. Food production both relies on and alters the very biological and material world on which it relies [4]. Agriculture is responsible for 47% of total anthropogenic methane emissions and 58% of nitrous oxide [5]. Moreover, livestock production is the largest contributor to agriculture’s carbon footprint, estimated to account for 14% of anthropogenic emissions, with animal feed production/processing and enteric fermentation accounting for 45% and 39% respectively [6].

Furthermore, present day farming practices have serious effects beyond contributing to greenhouse gases (GHG’s). Of all the land used for agriculture, 80% is given over to livestock production and is linked with mass deforestation; 3 million hectares per year, 70% of which is occurring in Latin America [7]. Food production also uses up to 70% of all freshwater [8], with livestock contributing most to the sectors associated with water pollution [9, 10]. In addition, modern agricultural methods are implicated in biodiversity loss, soil depletion and degradation [2, 5, 6, 11] such that some [4, 12] now suggest that agriculture has surpassed the environmental limits in which we live. All of these factors threaten the world’s ability to produce food into the future [13].

The ProblemClimate change also directly hinders the ability of agriculture to meet future food demands. It jeopardises the natural resources, water, biodiversity and soils on which agriculture relies and as such may see a material geographical shift in the production of soft commodities [5]. Moreover, climate change will result in deteriorating yields in some crops [2, 7, 14] and create harsher and more unpredictable conditions for producing agricultural commodities.

Consequently, extensive and wide ranging research into how we can develop solutions to the ‘CCAFS’ problem is underway, covering areas such as sustainable intensification, closing the yield gaps and climate-smart agriculture. The issue is, more often than not , conceived as issues of production [9]. However, it is the combination of both the production and subsequent consumption that makes food the biggest utilizer of natural resources [7]. If we are to meet future demands in addition to reducing agriculture’s environmental impact, then demand-side efficiency must also be addressed.

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