I occasionally come across broadly-stated quotes about the effect of meat-eating on my carbon footprint — for example this quote on ‘…”refusing meat” is the “single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.’

That always troubles me since, with the exception of air travel, I use very few fossil fuels — generally when I click through footprint-calculators my scores are all close to zero except for big looming figures under ‘air travel’ and ‘household’ (in other words, ‘heating my house’.)  Is eating the occasional sausage undoing all my work?

Last month I kept a log of all the meat that I ate — partly to compare what and how much I eat to the US averages, and partly to figure out how big of a coal-burning splash my diet is making.  So… here come statistics!

First, here are average consumption numbers from the 2002 FDA agriculture factbook:

  • Beef:  64.4 lb/year
  • Pork: 47.7 lb/year
  • Veal and lamb:  1.4 lb/year
  • Chicken: 52.9 lb/year
  • Turkey: 13.6 lb/year
  • Fish and shellfish: 15.2 lb/year

From a variety of  unreproducible Google searches, I’ve gathered the following numbers for the ‘grain equivalent’ of each meat (that is, the number of pounds of feed used to produce a pound of yield*) and pounds of CO2 produced per pount of meat production:

  • Beef:  15lbs of grain; 14.8 lbs of CO2
  • Pork: 6lbs of grain, 4.8 lbs of CO2
  • Veal and lamb:  15lbs of grain, 14.8 lbs of CO2
  • Chicken: 5 lbs of grain, 1.1 lbs of CO2
  • Turkey: 5 lbs of grain, 1.1 lbs of CO2
  • Fish and shellfish: 2lbs of grain, 2lbs of CO2**

A bit of spreadsheet work yields that the average American indirectly consumes 1,623 lbs of feed, and contributes 1,247 lbs of CO2 due to the meat in their diet.

Now, here are my numbers.  I noted my consumption (rounded to the ounce) from August 5th through September 5th, then multiplied everything by 12 to get comparable figures.

  • Beef:  3.7 lb/year
  • Pork: 74.3 lb/year
  • Veal and lamb:  0 lb/year
  • Chicken: 27.2 lb/year
  • Turkey: 2.4 lb/year
  • Fish and shellfish: 18 lb/year

It’s hard to say if August was a typical month.  My housemates have been barbecuing frequently, and I also visited the state fair twice.  I would expect that on the average I eat quite a bit more fowl and quite a bit less pork… or at least that’s what I’ll tell my cardiologist.  In any case, my personal grain-equivalent works out to be 685 lbs/year, and my meat related CO2 footprint, 405.5 lbs.

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The main thing I’ve learned from this is that I eat a lot of pork, and that this eccentricity results in my carbon footprint being hugely reduced.  Even the most detailed discussions of carbon food-print tend to use the lump term ‘red meat,’ but that’s dumb.  It’s clear that the real culprit, environmentally, is ruminants, and that nearly every other meat source is insignificant in comparison.  I ate 70% of the FDA read-meat average, but consumed only 42% of the average grain equivalent, and produced only 33% as much CO2 pollution.  Switching out some of my chops for chicken would reduce my CO2 use further, but not make much difference to my grain consumption.

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I went back and searched for more general information about the footprint effects of vegetarianism, and found fairly consistent comments that differ from my calculations.  For example, twiddling the numbers at make it clear that they’re using a figure of about a ton to distinguish between a red meat eater and a vegetarian — yet, my spreadsheet says that the total emissions from average meat consumption are about 60% of that.  I’m not sure what’s going on here — it’s possible that my CO2 numbers are bogus, or that is rounding to the ton.

In any case, even a ton of carbon is just not that much.  I seem to be contributing less than a quarter ton of CO2 from my meat habits, and simply heating my house produces more than 14 tons.  Cutting out beef has drastically reduced my grain consumption (and, with it, huge amounts of irrigation, soil erosion, and other badness), but if I’m looking for climate change gains, fussing with my diet is probably not the first place to start.

* Everyone seems to use pounds:pounds for measuring grain consumption, but that troubles me.  A pound of meat is very different, nutritionally, from a pound of grain, especially if the meat is high in fat.  And, especially where cows are concerned, including or excluding bones from the yield causes these numbers to swing all over the place.

** These are obviously nonsense.  I tend to eat locally farmed vegetarian fish (trout, char, catfish), which eats grain but got here on a truck.  At the other end, I occasionally eat seafood flown to MN on an airplane from the pacific — it didn’t eat any grain, but we used an awful lot of jet fuel to get it to my plate.  I’m sure that environmentally, a given piece of fish can range over the full spectrum represented by all other food sources, from soy to t-bone.  Fortunately I don’t eat enough fish to care much about these numbers.

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