Photo: Beef to beans: Understanding the impacts of our protein consumption

A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger a week was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres. (Credit: Adam Kuban via Flickr)

By Jenna Stoner, David Suzuki Foundation Summer Master's Student

Do you ever find yourself standing still in a grocery store, overwhelmed by choice? I do. Frequently. Our food system is complex, and considering the health, economic and environmental trade-offs involved in choosing products can be a challenge. As an intern at the David Suzuki Foundation, I spent my summer reviewing the published scientific literature on the environmental impacts and trade-offs between different protein sources. Chicken versus beef versus fish versus pork versus plant-based proteins... Which is better, you ask? Well, here are a few things I have learned:

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1. Trying to compare the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins is not easy

This is especially true when trying to compare land-based protein (e.g., beef, chicken or pork) to aquatic protein (e.g., fish or shellfish). All food-production systems have an environmental impact, but they don't all have the same type of impact. Carbon emissions are a big concern in beef production, biodiversity impacts are a big issue with most types of trawl gear, and the ecological impacts of feed are a problem in farming carnivorous fish. Trying to compare these impacts is like trying to compare apples to oranges; they are kind of the same, but totally different.

2. Trying to compare the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins is not easy... but researchers around the world are doing it

Creating a balanced picture that allows us to compare the environmental impacts of different protein-production systems is necessary so that governments, consumers and producers can make informed decisions. As such, researchers, non-governmental organizations and governments around the world are applying different methodologies to try to compare proteins. Life-cycle analysis (LCA) — a quantitative assessment tool used to evaluate the environmental effects of a product throughout its lifecycle from production to landfill — is the most commonly used assessment method. Many other comparative methodologies exist, however, and they all have associated benefits and drawbacks. No single methodology will be able to provide a complete picture, but they are a good start and if combined could lead to strong results.

3. What the research is saying about environmental impacts of different dietary proteins

Research has focused mostly on comparing the global warming potential of producing different proteins; that is, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of meat production. Generally, from this perspective lamb and beef have substantially greater impacts than legumes or shellfish, while chicken and finfish fall somewhere in between. There is significant variation in the data, however, due to differences in production systems, management and regulations, and the plant or animal that is being produced. And while greenhouse gas emissions are important to consider, they represent just one of many environmental impacts of protein production. Some studies examine land, water and nutrient use as environmental impact indicators, but these studies are less common.

4. Beef, chicken, fish, pork, tofu, beans... Which should you choose?

Unfortunately, after four months of research I still don't have a definitive answer, but an easy place to start is by eating less animal-based protein. A 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found that eating one fewer burger every week for a year was the equivalent of taking your car off the road for more than 500 kilometres, and if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week for a year it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. People are starting to take notice of the environmental and health benefits of this. The City of Vancouver, for example, proclaimed June 12 to be Meatless Monday, making it the first in Canada to take action on this issue.

When you pick a protein, a good rule of thumb is the lower down the food chain the less likely the environmental impact... legumes and shellfish are a good bet!

5. Want to know more about the environmental impacts of different dietary proteins?

Check out our Food and Climate Change page for more information and how you can be part of the solution.

September 10, 2013

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Sep 15, 2013
12:48 PM

Although this sounds great i think there is a bigger issue which is the overall lack of protein in our diets and over consumption of “bad” carbohydrates. What impact would no junk food for one person for a week have on the environment when considering packaging, waste, health benefits, etc. if people dont care about their bodies they will never care about something relatively physically and emotionally distant such as the environment.

Sep 12, 2013
8:09 PM

I’ve recently learned that hemp produces one of the highest qualities of protein and it is the most earth friendly way to get. Plus the fact that the hemp plant is used for so many different things. So each time it is cropped it has multiple uses.

If you don’t already know about it, I encourage you to look into it. Plus do an article on it.

Sep 12, 2013
4:15 PM

i’m sorry, but it’s not as simple as “Eating further down the food chain” thinking a vegetarian meal is better for the planet is completely ignoring the affect of growing annual crops. We are running out of topsoil and need to get back to a more balanced form of farming. It is becoming more and more widely known that ruminants can help us restore topsoil. Please look at the work of Allan Savory and how is he reversing desertification. Mother nature needs balance. I will agree that CAFO industrial meat production is a travesty and completely against nature. We need to look at the true cost of industrialized farming and as we remove artificially low grain prices maintained by subsidies we will find the CAFO model unsustainable. Eat ethically raised and properly farmed animals, as grass fed cows are helping save the world

Sep 12, 2013
9:41 AM

Cool article: another reason to go Green, go Vegan!!

Sep 12, 2013
9:35 AM

It’s all a BIG LIE. We have no carbon problem and the Earth is now actually cooling. Search the internet and you will find experimental results regarding global warming. Let me tell you this: the Earth passes through different phases, sometimes there is a global warming and after that there is a global cooling, IT’S NATURAL.

Carbon emmisions are actually beneficial to the environment!!

Wake up and start doing some research. use the internet.

Sep 12, 2013
7:01 AM

The following talk by Allan Savory shocked me — I do not have the scientific background to make an opinion. But I would appreciate The Foundation making an evaluation:

Sep 11, 2013
9:50 PM

Good article. I appreciate the fact that these comparisons are complex and not definitive but the impacts that our choices make vary greatly by geography as well. I would like to see a study on soy products. I have researched this a bit and found that soy is (more likely than not to be) harmful to human health. There are various factors : beginning with the fact that soybeans were never really fit for human consumption but provided an alternative where required. Secondly, due to cross-pollination, any claim that this soy is non-GMO should be regarded with suspicion. Further, possible redeeming qualities are present when it is in a fermented state. Them, let me assert that I have first-hand knowledge of a dear friend who started consuming soy milk as an alternative to dairy products and developed lupus. The symptoms declined when the soy was dropped from her diet so there is no doubt (in her mind) that it was indeed the culprit. Studies have been done but I believe that the public is largely unaware of them and therefore ignorant to the possible detrimental effects that consuming anything derived from soybeans is causing them. Something to consider.

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