In June 2018, researchers at Oxford University published their findings on the environmental impacts of food production, including the production of meat. They analyzed a database of 40,000 farms and 1,600 processors, packaging facilities, and retailers to look at the impacts that particular items of food have.
The focus of the research project was on the variability of producers in terms of environmental impact, meaning that if you bought an item of food produced by one farm or processor it could have triple the impact on the environment than choosing the same item produced at a different farm or processor – this is due to variance in the packaging they use, the amount of travel, the facilities and more. As the researchers put it: "Two things that look the same in the shops can have extremely different impacts on the planet. We currently don’t know this when we make choices about what to eat."
Consider a pint of beer, for instance. Packaging has a big influence on the impact that the item has. If the producer uses returnable stainless steel kegs they will only use 20g of CO2 per liter of beer, but using bottles that are sent to the landfill, they will use between 450g and 2500g of CO2 per liter.
However, the major finding from the study is that the biggest variability is still between the farming of animals and of plants, even taking into account these major variances between producers. For instance, even a low-impact liter of cow’s milk uses almost two times as much land and creates double the emissions as an average liter of soy milk. This means that ‘animal product free diets are likely to deliver greater environmental benefits than changing production practices both today and in the future’. Switching to a plant-based diet reduces emissions by up to 73% and requires 76% less farmland.
The recommendations that the researchers made, with this in mind, are that to reduce the environmental impact of our food production we need to:
1. Reduce the amount of meat in our diets – if everybody cut their meat consumption by 50% it would have more of an impact than reviewing production practices at all farms
2. Have labels on the food that we buy making the environmental impact of that item clear
3. Financial incentives for eating plant-based foods i.e. increased prices on meat products
4. Create strategies and policies which reduce the impact of farmers on the environment.
If you want to read the full scientific article head here.
Image credit: Unsplash/Annie Spratt