In 2011, the Environmental Working Group released a report comparing the environmental impacts of various protein sources.
The study found that lamb, beef, cheese, pork, and farmed salmon are the worst for the environment in terms of greenhouse gases produced.
With the exception of farmed salmon, they also require the most inputs (feed, fuel, water, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) and generate the most manure. Turkey, chicken, canned tuna, and eggs also scored highly for greenhouse gas emissions.
Where do all these greenhouse gas emissions come from? A lot of this pollution is caused by feed production and the nitrogen dioxide and methane released by animal manure, particularly in concentrated, confined feedlots.
The proteins responsible for the lowest greenhouse gas emissions are lentils, milk, beans, tofu, yogurt, nuts, and peanut butter. However, although the production of plant-based protein sources tends to generate less greenhouse gas than producing meat, transporting produce is a major source of pollution as well, so unless buyers purchase fruits and vegetables locally, these products can still do significant harm to the environment.
Meat, dairy, and eggs that have been certified as organic, grass-fed, or humane-raised are far less environmentally damaging than other animal-based protein sources. Research also indicates that grass-fed and pasture-raised animals produce more nutritious products, and that these products are less likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria. Organic products are also free of the hormones and antibiotics often given to animals on factory farms.
The Environmental Working Group notes that cutting back on meat consumption can have a significant environmental impact. For example, if a family of four stops eating steak once per week, this equates to not driving a car for almost three months.
To read the full report, see What You Eat Matters by Kari Hamershlag, Environmental Working Group.
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