Chicken or beef? Which food choices are worse for the environment

Eco-conscious shopping may not be as straightforward as you think. Anthony Warner unpacks your trolley

08 November 2020 - 00:03 By Anthony Warner
Whatever you buy, reusable shopping bags are a more planet-friendly choice than single-use plastic packets.
Whatever you buy, reusable shopping bags are a more planet-friendly choice than single-use plastic packets.
Image: 123RF/Dmitrii Shironosov

CHICKEN OR BEEF?

Is chicken "better" than beef? It is more efficient at converting feed into meat and has far lower carbon emissions per gram, but chickens are largely fed on human-edible food such as grains, whereas cows can convert grass into protein. Swapping some beef for chicken is probably wise, but unfortunately it's complicated.

LOOSE VS PLASTIC-WRAPPED PRODUCE?

It depends. Excess plastic packaging is certainly to be avoided, but in some cases plastic can help reduce food waste. Plastic wrapping on cucumbers and broccoli has been shown to reduce the environmental impact by extending shelf life.

PALM OIL OR ANIMAL FAT?

Though palm oil production drives a lot of tropical deforestation, it's a very efficient, productive crop. Completely banning it may not be the best option as some of the replacements, including beef fat, might have a greater environmental impact. Instead, look for RSPO-certified palm oil that doesn't result in deforestation.

CHICKEN OR ORGANIC CHICKEN?

Organic food is often sold as a more sustainable option, but organic chicken requires three times the land of conventional production.

NO-TILL OR CONVENTIONAL?

No-till agriculture is one of the most promising farming practices in environmental terms, with many crops now being produced without any ploughing. Ploughing is known to cause soil degradation and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It's currently hard to identify food grown in this way.

LOCAL OR IMPORTS?

Though locally grown produce has lower transport emissions, the cost of growing things in unsuitable climates can exceed the benefit. Hothouse-grown tomatoes often have several times the climate impact of imported varieties.

AIR FREIGHT OR ROAD FREIGHT?

Though the transport of food is generally a low proportion of its climate impact, air-freighted fruits and vegetables are an exception. These are best avoided or minimised.

PLASTIC OR GLASS?

Though glass bottles and jars are often chosen on environmental grounds, they can have a greater impact than plastic over a full life cycle. Heavy-duty reusable plastics, or easily recycled lightweight versions, are often better options.

ALMOND MILK OR OAT MILK?

Though almond milk production has low climate emissions and is efficient regarding land use, it uses large amounts of water, often in regions where supplies are limited. Oats are a better option as they can be grown in regions with high rainfall.

CHEESE OR MEAT?

Many people going vegetarian will swap meat for cheese, but there's evidence that cheese has a greater climate impact than chicken or pork (although less than beef or lamb). A note: most studies look at climate impact per gram. While eating 150g of chicken is not unusual, that much cheddar would be fairly extreme.

SLOW-GROWN CHICKENS OR STANDARD?

Slow-grown chickens are highly prized, but the difference is often only a matter of 10-12 days. Slowly raised animals have a larger climate impact, although if choosing them means you eat less and value it more, it might still be a good choice.


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