Each type of meat that can be eaten has a different sustainability footprint.
That sustainability footprint can be influenced by different factors.
In this guide, we look at different types of sustainability footprints, the different factors that might be at play in making up those footprints, as well as what meats might be more sustainable or less sustainable compared to others.
(Note – this is general information guide only. It is not health advice, and is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional)
Summary – What Is The Most Sustainable Meat To Eat?
The most sustainable meat to eat depends on the sustainability indicator being measured
It also depends on the meat production method/system e.g. grass fed vs grain fed, factory farmed vs free range, land based vs water based, if fished – the fishing methods used, whether it’s wild caught or fish farmed, and so on.
For agricultural meat production, variables like feed conversion efficiency also plays a part
There’s ultimately different measures/indicators of sustainability.
For example are you measuring water consumption, carbon emissions, water pollution, air pollution, land use … or some type of other factor or indicator?
Each indicator might have a different type of meat coming out on top, and different variables to consider
There’s also the lifecycle of producing meat to consider – different stages are going to have different sustainability and environmental impacts.
For example, the farming or production stage might have a far bigger footprint than the transport/delivery stage
To look at the sustainability of different meats …
To look at one sustainability indicator – Beef and lamb have the highest carbon footprint by far, whilst chicken is one of the more sustainable meats in terms of carbon footprint, as well as farmed salmon, turkey and tuna
Looking at another – beef, pork and lamb have higher water footprints than chicken
The sustainability footprint of seafood can different depending on the fishing method used – even ocean based fish aquaculture and fishing methods like trawling can have a significant environmental impact, but, that impact is specific to the ocean (compared to land based agriculture which impacts soil, fresh water, air pollution, and so on).
Wild caught food might be some of the most sustainable meat you can eat because there’s only a small human footprint (although, using a boat and burning fuel for example can make this footprint larger).
One example of wild caught meat might be Kangaroo in Australia – which according to some reports doesn’t use much water and has a small CO2 footprint (abc.net.au)
Final numbers on sustainability of meat can be influenced by the unit meat is measured by – by calorie produced, gram of protein produced, gram of fat produced, and so on
Lab grown meat is not as sustainable as some people think. There’s energy usage to run the labs, and lab grown meat still needs cells/tissue from animals as a source to grow the meat.
Something some people might forget to consider is that meat has both a health, and an economic factor as well.
Meat needs to be profitable for producers, but, also affordable and healthy (adequate nutrition, and compatible with health requirements) for consumers.
So, sustainability isn’ the only measure of finding suitable meat to eat
Unnecessary animal cruelty and the right of the animals is an additional factor to consider with some types of meat production
Other than switching the type of meat someone eats, eating less total meat (especially beef, as well as lamb and goat), and adding certain types of plant based foods to a diet might be a more sustainable way to eat.
Eating less dairy might be another way.
According to some reports, what we eat (and what it takes to produce that food) might be the biggest sustainability factor, compared to whether the food product is locally sourced or comes with less plastic packaging
List Of Different Types Of Meat
Some of the more common ones might include:
Ocean & Freshwater Caught Meat
Aquaculture (land based, and off land, as well as marine and fresh water)
Exotic Meats, & Wild Caught Meats
Lab Grown Meat
Sustainability Of Different Meats
It depends on the sustainability indicator being measured.
Some of those measures and estimates include …
The production system under which meat is produced can affect the water footprint – for example, industrial systems with efficient feed conversion might be more water efficient than mixed or grazing systems.
The carbon footprint of beef … isn’t the same everywhere.
South America-sourced beef has a higher carbon footprint due to rampant deforestation there; in New Zealand, France, and the U.K., it’s lower thanks to better farm management practices.
[One set of data puts GHG emissions per gram of protein produced for different meats (from most to least) at – ruminant meat (62 CO2e), recirculating aquaculture (30), trawling fishery (26), non recirculating aquaculture (12), pork (10), poultry (10), non trawling fishery (8.6). Eggs, starchy roots, wheat, maize, and legumes all rate low on the list.] (wikipedia.org)
In terms of metres squared of land used per unit of protein produced, the meats that use the most land (in order of most to least) are beef, pork, then poultry (chicken).
There are different types of land – arable vs grazing land for example – so the type of land being used should be specified, as some are more scarce than others.
Economics, Production & Employment
Pesticide & Fertilizer Use
The Meat Production Method Matters
For example, meat can be:
Farmed vs wild caught
There can be different agricultural methods used
There can be different fishing methods used
And, there’s additional variables to consider like feed conversion efficiency, how long an animal stays on a farm, how waste is treated or disposed of, the level of pollution or degradation from the production method, resources used for the production method, and so on
Potential Ways To Improve Meat Sustainability Footprint
Switch the type of meat being eat
Eat less meat in general, and eat more plant based foods
Eat foods that meet criteria for being sustainably produced
Don’t waste as much of the food that you buy
Buying locally produced food might decrease the transport/delivery footprint
Commit to meeting production-side sustainability criteria that lowers environmental impact, and improves other sustainability measures such as sustainable use of resources, protecting animal welfare and species numbers, and so on
Also Consider Health Of The Individual & Economics
Separate to sustainability, environmental impact, and animal cruelty/animal rights – there’s the issues of human health and economics to consider.
Meat production has to be profitable for producers, but also accessible and affordable for consumers.
Meat also has to meet the health requirements of the person eating it – it has to have adequate nutrition, but also be safe and fit in with any health requirements (such as health conditions, intolerances, and so on)
One example of health requirements is eating ideal sources of high quality proteins with a good amino acid profile. Cereals and grains may not be an ideal source of protein.
According the fastcompany.com:
[Eating] a good balanced diet of legumes (peas, beans), tofu, nuts, and grains, you can certainly meet your protein needs
Notes On The Different Meat Types
Conventionally Farmed Meat
[Interestingly, some reports indicate that some free range animals require more feed than shed or factory farmed animals, and therefore aren’t as green]
[Farmers that use waste products from other food producers as part of the feed mix can be more green]
[Using the whole animal as opposed to just specific parts of the animal makes meat production more efficient and less wasteful]
[Some farmers use sustainable farming practices, compared to practices which might be used for profit or scale and might neglect sustainable practices]
[Industrially produced meat uses land, crops, water, energy, and has an impact on the environment. It can also create animal welfare concerns]
[Eating less meat, and eating pasture raised meat over factory farmed/industrially produced meat, might be two ways to decrease the food footprint for an individual]
[Farmers who produce pasture raised meat can use certain farming techniques that might be more sustainable, and being pasture raised might be better for the animals too]
[Eating less meat can be one way to offset the increased price of pasture raised meat]
[People should take into consideration the daily recommendation for protein if they are worried that they aren’t eating enough meat -] 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men
[The biggest impact individuals can make isn’t eating organic over conventionally farmed, or eating local, or eating zero plastic packaging foods – it’s substituting meats like beef for more sustainable food like plant based proteins. Land use change is the biggest factor with food sustainability]
[Animal feed plays a huge part in the sustainability of meat. The more resource intensive it is, and the less efficient animals are in converting it to meat that can be consumed, the less sustainable the meat might be]
[Environmental impact from beef might come from grass digestion which produces methane, damage to land from hooves, manure waste, grain feed which requires a lot of water]
[Overall, grass fed beef might be more resource efficient than cattle fed from feed we have to grow]
[Cattle requires the most land, food and time of any meat to produce]
[The biggest problem with beef, but also sheep and goat, is that they are inefficient as converting feed to food, and they require large quantities of land and water per unit of protein and calorie produced and consumed]
[Eating less meat and dairy is one way to lessen the environmental impact for an individual]
[People can cut their land footprint and GHG emission footprint by anywhere from 15 to 35 percent by reducing the amount of beef they eat from anywhere from a third to 70 percent]
Sheep come up to weight a lot faster and are less resource-intensive than cattle, but ewes usually have just one offspring a year, making them less efficient to raise than pigs or chickens, which reproduce much more frequently
[Grows fast, and need half as much feed as cattle. Has a reasonable reproduction rate, and being omnivores means they can feed on food waste and scraps/leftovers]
Chicken & Turkey
[Do not produce methane, and need less food and water than sheep and cows]
[Although, slaughtering can be energy intensive, and the manure produced from intensively produced poultry can contain chemicals and pollutants]
[Chicken reproduces at a good weight, and gains weight quickly]
[Chicken in general might be more sustainable than beef, lamb and pork]
Chicken and pork are more resource-efficient than beef
[Rabbits may actually be one of the most sustainable meats to produce]
The sustainability of seafood depends on the type of seafood, and how it’s produced, fished or caught.
For example, the environmental impact of pole caught fish might be far less than trawl or dredged caught fish (can be issues with bycatches, and damage to ocean floor).
There might also be differences between commercial/large scale fishing which might bring into concern issues with overfishing, and small scale or individual level fishing.
In terms of marine fishing, one estimate says that due to irresponsible fishing practices “85 percent of the world’s fisheries are fished at or beyond their maximum sustainable limit’ (wikipedia.org)
[Some of the issues that commercial fishing might contribute to might be overfishing, habitat damage, bycatch of vulnerable species, and discards. There’s also the issue of pirate fishing] (sustainweb.org)
[Aquaculture has become farm more sustainable in recent times]
[Newer more sustainable practices, better siting of aquaculture operations, and other factors have contributed to this better sustainability]
The feed conversion ratio, which is the measurement of how much feed it takes to produce the protein, is 1.1. This means that essentially one pound of feed produces one pound of the protein. Beef, pork and chicken’s feed conversion ratios vary between 2.2-10
[Fish farmed on land might be more sustainable that open water farmed fish because they require no antibiotics, and their effluent come into contact with the surrounding marine environment. Waste water can also be cleaned and re-used]
[Other reports say that specific types of ocean farmed fish have a small ecological footprint, such as Atlantic Salmon]
Atlantic salmon is one of the most energy efficient farmed animals; its carbon footprint is one tenth of the footprint of beef, including the fact that seafood is transported over longer distances to market than meat. Growing salmon uses significantly less water and space compared to beef too.
[There’s also challenges to land based fish farms -] To grow salmon to market size and meet the global demand would require massive amounts of land, water and energy
[Waste and pollutants can result from fish farming]
[Farmed fish require fish feed, can pollute the water, can contribute to parasites and the spread of disease, can have escapees that impact wild fish populations, and can damage the habitat]