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Is your meat habit killing the planet?
Like everything in sustainability, it all depends. There is no such thing as a sustainable food, only a sustainable food-producing system. However, our current system is far from sustainable, and of this unsustainable system, meat, especially beef, is the worst food by about a factor of 10 in terms of resource consumption per Calorie.
But before I get into that, some background information: A “moderately active” person of around 140 pounds consumes approximately 2600 Calories per day. We don’t want to starve anyone, so we can assume that a person will consume this many Calories. What we are looking for is the sort of “Caloric efficiency” of foods, or the number of Calories used to produce a food and get it to your mouth compared to the number of Calories your body gets from it.
I’m ignoring nutrient content beyond calories, since I haven’t seen any analysis of this and because it’s generally possible to obtain necessary nutrients for any reasonable diet. I also won’t talk about transportation of food products, since in general the energy consumption of food transportation is about 10 times less than the consumption of producing the food.
So how do different foods compare? Beef, and most other red meats, come out absolute worst, at around 12 Calories used to produce the food per Calorie consumed by your body. Pork is around 6 Calories/Calorie, and chicken around 4 Calories/Calorie. Eggs are similar or slightly more than chicken meat, at around 5 Calories/Calorie, while dairy products (milk and cheese) are both much less than beef, around 3 Calories/Calorie. Most plant products are pretty efficient, around 1 Calorie/Calorie, although that varies significantly depending on the Calorie density of the food.
So does this mean that eating meat is destroying the planet? Well, it’s certainly not helping, but by no means is it the largest factor contributing to your energy consumption. The energy consumption of the average meat-eater’s diet is around ¼ to 1/5 the size of the average yearly energy consumption for transportation (driving or flying from place to place), around around ½ the amount of energy consumed for heating and cooling the spaces you live and work in.
Cutting meat, especially beef, out of your diet is an easy way to meaningfully reduce your impact on the world. However, if meat is an integral part of your identity and happiness, then there are plenty of other things you can do to minimize your impact, like reducing the larger consumptions of personal transportation by biking or taking public transit rather than driving, or reducing frequency of plane flights. All I ask is that you make well informed, thought out decisions.