Simply eating chicken rather than beef could cut the average American’s dietary carbon footprint in half, a new survey of 16,800 United States residents suggests.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the findings center on meat, a food category notorious for producing high greenhouse gas emissions. But the forecast for meat lovers isn’t entirely bleak, as Stephen Leahy reports for National Geographic. Agricultural economist Diego Rose of Tulane University detailed the findings at this week’s annual American Society for Nutrition meeting.
Speaking with Inverse’s Emma Betuel, Rose notes that an individual who opts for chicken over beef every day for a year could lower their emissions by roughly the same amount released by driving a car for 3,700 miles.
“We knew it would be lower,” Rose says, “but we were surprised about how much of reduction there was from just one simple change.”
According to Courthouse News’ Helen Christophi, Rose’s analysis, which is yet to be published in a scientific journal, drew on data collected via the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants listed all of the foods they had eaten in the past 24 hours, and researchers used these answers to calculate the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by producing each component of respondents’ daily diets.
Overall, some 20 percent of participants reported eating beef at some point during the previous day. The ten foods with the highest carbon footprints, as determined by measuring the amount of emissions generated by what Leahy terms the “energy, fertilizer and land use involved in growing food,” were all cuts of beef. The carbon-heavy meat also dominated assessments of high-impact foods in randomly selected respondents’ diets; beef, representing the most carbon-heavy choice in 52 percent of such cases, was closely followed by mixed-beef dishes, which emerged as the most environmentally unfriendly food in 33 percent of chosen diets.
To gauge the benefits of eating less beef, the team created a model in which a hypothetical human swapped a beef-based food item for a poultry-based one. “For example, chicken for steak, ground turkey for ground beef,” Rose tells Inverse’s Betuel. “If a respondent ate a steak, fries, and salad for dinner, we substituted the steak for an equivalent calorie amount of chicken, but left the fries and salad.”
By making a similarly straightforward substitution just once a day, an individual can reduce their dietary carbon footprint by around 48 percent, Dennis Thompson reports for Health Day. But this drop in environmental impact doesn’t have to mark a decline in dietary quality. In the researchers’ model, all of the chicken-based meals amounted to the same number of calories as the beef-based ones. As Rose explains to Thompson, “We’re not putting anybody on a diet here.”
Beef’s immense carbon footprint stems from a number of factors. Meat products in general produce much higher emissions than plant-based foods. Multiple rounds of agriculture—including growing corn or crops to feed livestock and subsequently raising these animals—are necessary, and cattle, particularly methane-making cows, release ample amounts of gas. Crucially, National Geographic’s Leahy writes, beef production uses 20 times as much land and releases 20 times the emissions as growing beans. The cow-centric process also requires more than 10 times the resources needed to produce chicken.
Water Campbell, a nutrition scientist at Purdue University who was not involved in the new research, tells Thompson that the study’s findings were “consistent with what would be expected” when opting for white meat instead of red. Still, he notes that he doesn’t “think it would be appropriate” to suggest mass meal substitutions without conducting additional research on topics such as the relative nutritive value of chicken versus beef.
Campbell concludes, “For example, if [a] person is eating highly processed fatty sausages as their red meat and they switch to a baked chicken breast, that's going to have a much more positive impact on their health than if they were eating a lean pork tenderloin and switched to fried chicken."