Sustainable Food Guide: Meat

Information compiled by Gabrielle Petrelli

Let’s face it. Sometimes, there’s nothing better than that first bite of a juicy bacon cheeseburger. It’s an all American classic that even this quasi-vegetarian can’t resist the urge for from time to time. Unfortunately, we can’t indulge these cravings all the time. Not only will it negatively impact our health, but the beef in these burgers has a massive impact on the environment. In fact, the meat industry as a whole produces 51 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas production worldwide (1), and occupies 30 percent of the world’s non-ice covered land (2). According to a recent study by Cambridge and Aberdeen (3), if meat and dairy consumption continue on their rising trend, greenhouse gas emissions will go up by 80%. With that in mind, we’ve created some tips to help you make your meat eating habits more sustainable.

1. Cut out meat.

One of the most sustainable choices you can make is cutting out meat from your diet entirely. Simple in theory, but we know how difficult this can be. Oftentimes, there are concerns about getting enough protein on a vegetarian and vegan diet, and the fact that meat is the center of many of our favorite dishes. However, there are many vegetables that have high protein content and some grains like quinoa that can help you make your protein quota. Check out this infographic on meat substitutes and vegetable parodies of several staple meat dishes

Graphic by Gabrielle Petrelli

Graphic by Gabrielle Petrelli

Even if you can’t cut out meat entirely, commit yourself to more veggie-based meals per week. Although meat dishes might at times be cheaper to make than vegetable dishes, reducing meat to a treat, instead of a staple, in your diet will free up your budget to add more fruits and vegetables.

2. Choose a more sustainable meat.
Not all types of meat have the same environmental impacts.


As demonstrated on this graphic from Environmental Working Group (EWG), some meats have higher carbon footprints than others. Lamb is by far the worst, however beef is consumed far more in the United States and thus accounts for a larger portion of total GHG emissions. However, EWG leaves one meat off this list that seems to be gaining popularity, particularly with those who wish to eat sustainably. Rabbit meat is often regarded as one of the most sustainable meats out there, and even food experts like Michael Pollan are on-board (4, 5, 6).

Graphic by Gabrielle Petrelli

Graphic by Gabrielle Petrelli

3. Buy whole animals instead of bulk orders of one specific cut, or buy from butchers who sell tongue-to-tail.

A lot of good meat goes to waste when people opt for large orders of popular cuts instead of multiple cuts from the same individual animal. Although using butchers who source whole animals might mean they could be sold out of the cut you want, many tongue-to-tail specialists will help you find a great alternative and give you tips on preparation.

4. Don’t be fooled by labels.

There are so many labels out there, it’s difficult to keep them all straight. As a start, we recommend looking for these four labels:

Graphic by Brenna O'Dea

Graphic by Brenna O'Dea

5. Be aware of trade-offs.

Sometimes, “organic” and “pasture raised” can seem like the more sustainable option, but these methods of production may actually increase certain impacts. In the case of chicken, carbon emissions per pound of meat produced are actually higher for free-range chickens than Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) chickens. This is largely due to the fact that CAFO methods of production are much more efficient at turning feed to meat than free-range models, thus the more inhumane treatment of these animals. Similarly, cattle raised entirely on pasture may produce more greenhouse gas emissions per pound of meat produced because it takes longer for them to grow to butcher-size (and thus they are around longer, passing more gas). Yet, CAFOs pose a much greater threat to nearby water and surrounding air quality. If giving up meat is not feasible for you in the near future, Next Bites suggests limiting its consumption and purchasing organic and local when it is desired. This will, at the very least, guarantee the lower carbon emissions from transportation and more ethical treatment of animals.

For more information, check out these great resources from other environmental organizations and publications:

Environmental Working Group's Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change + Health

Grist’s Series: Meat: What’s smart, what’s right, what’s next