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Numerous studies detail the climate impact of livestock, but just how big is it’s impact on a person’s foodprint?
This post compares the carbon footprints of five different American diets and finds that when it comes to foodprints vegan’s lead the way.
Even since the FAO announced that 18% of global emission result from livestock people have talked about the climate benefits of reducing meat consumption.
More recent studies show that food system emissions could account for as much as quarter of all human emissions. Such studies beg the question, what is the impact of meat on an individual’s foodprint?
For each diet we look solely at the emissions associated with food supply, so we do not include those from consumer’s transportation, storage or the cooking of food.
Rather than bore you with the methodology let’s start with the results and work back through how they were calculated.
A Vegetarian’s foodprint is about two thirds of the average American and almost half that of a meat lover. In the average diet animal products make up 60% of emissions despite accounting for just a quarter of food energy.  For the Meat Lover beef consumption causes almost half of emissions from just a tenth of food energy.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing is that although the foodprints vary greatly, three fifths of each diet is identical.  In other words, 60% of food energy consumed is the same in each of these four diets. Each of these five diets are variations of the average American diet based on data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. For each of our diets we assume consumption of around  2,600 kcal of food energy each day, roughly equal to an average American.
The five diets are all variations on the average diet.  We assume the Meat Lover eats more red meat, white meat and dairy in place of some cereals, fruit and vegetables. The food energy that remains the same is each diet is roughly 450 kcal of cereals, 80 kcal of fruit, 50 kcal of vegetables, 580 kcal of oils, 220 kcal of snacks and 180 kcal of drinks.
The reason that these five foodprints vary so much despite being so similar is that the carbon intensity of food consumption differs greatly between the food groups.
To estimate each foodprints we first calculated the carbon intensity of food consumption in each group.
These figures estimate the emissions produced in the process of supplying a kilocalorie of food energy for each food group.  They show on average how carbon intensive it is for Americans to get their energy from the different food groups. Although the carbon intensity of food production is the main driver in these figures, each is also influenced by how calorific foods are and what scale of supply chain losses and consumer waste they suffer. For example oils, snacks and cereals are each highly calorific and have relatively low losses and waste, which results in them performing very well.  The opposite is true of fruits and vegetables which are less calorific per unit weight but have a very high share of consumer waste and supply chain losses. This analysis attempts to show the important role animal products, and red meat in particular, have in determining the scale of a person’s foodprint. Because we use national averages for food consumption, production emissions, food energy content, food losses and food waste  our estimates may vary significantly from an individuals diet. Such caveats aside, this analysis does highlight that a small share of the food we eat can cause the majority of our food emissions.
Shifting some of your diet away from these foods towards cereals or in-season fruit and vegetables is a very effective way to shrink your foodprint. Pingback: Blog: ?Como perder peso, alimentar a 9 mil millones de personas y salvar el planeta?
You are talking about 0.8 ton per year reduction in CO2 from changing an average diet to a vegetarian diet. Ruminants emissions exceed that of personal automobiles and that of residential electricity at a global level.


The US Environmental Protection Agency announces that nationally, livestock production contributes only 3.4% of US greenhouse gas emissions. All animal agriculture accounts for 51% of greenhouse gases which is far more than all the transportation modes together! I believe if we want to create a sustainable global environment, we have to realize what is doing the harm, and that every environmental problem can be traced back to four things: overpopulation, coal, oil, and natural gas. Actually I’m suprised by how little the environmental groups are doing to solve the real problem, considering how much has been said against Corn and Beef.
But it’s just not the beef industry, the dairy industry and all animal agriculture is having a huge negative impact on out planet. Ok, so what I watched was the trailer, which has no information whatsoever, you have to buy the movie to see it. If we don’t stop global overpopulation, humans will cover every square inch of the earth, and there will not be any room for anything else. So, lets say that we are able to get these people to kill their livestock and get rid of them. Now lets say that you have another switch, and you can flip this switch and the people of the world will stop procreating, they’ll stop reproducing. Ok that explains it then as the trailer is just a teaser as the Sierra Club guy admits it in the film.
Lori, do you live in a farming community, or do you raise food animals or crops, do you raise most of your own food in a garden?
Consider that most of your ancestors had to grow their own food and had a very different opinion about food.
I live in a farming community where alot of folks grow row crops or make their living farming or ranching or both.
Central Texas has a strong German heritage, and a guy that I work with tells me often about both of his German grandfathers, how they both had dairies and he has fond memories of working with his grandfather on the dairy.
My children feed our beef steers, and it gives them respect and admiration for the animals, and a knowledge of where their food comes from. But you can’t tell the rest of the world to eat mess meat and the US to keep eating all it wants! Lori, I understand that your mind is made up and nothing will sway you, but I wanted to share two things with you. The first is an article that shows the increase in exports for Brazilian beef, and where this beef is going.
The second thing I wanted to share with you is a video of Frank Mitloehner speaking about how U.S. Don’t get me wrong, I love organic vegetables, my parents grow tomatoes and peaches, they are much better than anything that you can buy at a supermarket. So, if you think about the fuel that was burned producing and transporting those vegetables, and think about it in terms of “food-per-gallon” instead of miles-per-gallon, you’ll begin to see how organic vegetables from the small local producer at the farmers market could kill our planet. It is widely documented that food miles represent only 5-10% of total food system emissions.
Lindsay, I’m not sure what data that you say that I am not looking at, because I have looked at every scientific document regarding emissions and cattle that I can find. What you have been reading is something someone imagined-up to influence you to buy their magazine. And just for the record I did attend the University of Texas College of Civil Engineering where I studied Environmental Science. Lindsay, your carbon footprint is much lower than the national average, you are squeaky clean.


This is an exercise that anyone driving a gasoline or diesel powered car can do to compare their car’s emissions to a cow. Now consider that there now are 245 million cars on the road and only 29 million beef cows (cow inventory has dropping since 1992). These are graphs (created using data from US EPA, US EIA, USDA, FHWA, census, and IEA data) compare the U.S.
This is a chart from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory showing energy sources and the industries that use energy in the United States. Globally livestock is up near 15% of total emissions when deforestation is included (closer to 8% without it it). As long as there are folks spreading false and misleading information about the HUGE impact that cattle have on the environment, no one is going to think about the real problems, fossil fuels and overpopulation. The UN has admitted a report linking livestock to global warming exaggerated the impact of eating meat on climate change. EPA is the organization that is doing the harm (and killing people) if you believe that they have under-reported animal agriculture emissions. EPA is reporting the emission sources properly because I’ve seen a lot of industries that produce most of the greenhouse gases. The rain forests being cleared for cattle, the amount of water it takes to produce one pound of meat or one glass of milk. Remember it’s not just the rainforests but the huge amounts of water needed to raise cattle and produce meat, that is a huge concern also! Although all transportation methods account for 13% of greenhouse gases and all animal agriculture account for 51%. The Energy Information Administration tells us that gasoline and diesel fuel contributed to 1,522 million metric tons of CO2 in 2013. Energy consumption from fossil fuels (Coal, Oil, and Natural Gas) is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the U.S.
There are plenty of resources for the current population but a minority wants to consume the lionshare of resources thereby taking them away from the poor.
Since methane has 28 times the climate change impact of CO2, we multiply this number by 28, to get 1,896 kg CO2e per cow, per year. Electricity produces the most CO2e (32%), followed by Transportation (28%), then Industry (20%), followed by Commercial & Residential (10%). Then the other animal agriculture plus the huge water consumption to produce animal protein!
All the grain feed to cattle for bourgeois tastes could be used to feed every human a couple times over. Many reports from other scientists, Harvard etc say we need to move towards a more plant based diet.
We can not feed the planet on a diet of meat and dairy so that is another reason to move away from a meat heavy diet. US consumes the most animal products of all countries and is also the sickest nation in the world!
US beef production is actually much lower carbon intensity that most other countries due to efficiency, but still a third of all food related emissions. Gasoline and diesel produced over 13.2 times as much CO2e as all of the beef cattle combined.



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