Organic meat is as harmful for the climate as alternatives, says study

What’s happening? The climate damage resulting from organic meat production is just as severe as from conventionally farmed meat, according to a study by German researchers. The analysis calculated the greenhouse gas emissions generated by different foods and found that organic and conventional production led to similar climate costs for beef and lamb. Organic chicken was slightly more damaging for the climate, but organic pork was slightly less so, compared to conventional alternatives. Organically grown plants were found to have half the climate costs when compared to conventional crops due to the absence of chemical fertilisers, the study found.

Why does this matter? While organic farming can offer local environmental benefits, when considering the larger scale, overall greenhouse gas emissions from organic practices look to be no better than conventional methods.

The livestock industry is a significant emitter, accounting for around 15% of global emissions. This new study, based on German food production systems, points to the high climate costs linked to conventional farming from methane burps but also from feed, particularly if this is linked to deforestation in regions such as South America. Similar costs from organic meat are a result of livestock growing more slowly, thus emitting more methane over a longer comparative lifetime compared to conventionally farmed cattle.

Some advocates support grass-fed cattle as a more sustainable farming alternative, but evidence suggests this may be counterproductive. Shifting to exclusively grass-fed cattle would mean an increase in cattle herd sizes by 30% in the US, requiring more land for grazing and increasing overall methane emissions. It should be noted, however, that the US is the largest consumer of beef per capita globally. If Americans adjusted their diets, shifting to grass-fed cattle could represent a more potent solution.

The environmentally friendly aspects of organic farming include the use of fewer chemical pesticides and fertilisers, in addition to better manure management practices which generate less air and water pollution.

There are solutions that may be able to reduce emissions in both conventional and organic farms. Altering livestock diets is one area being explored to reduce emissions. For instance, firms such as Australia’s FutureFeed are looking to commercialise an Asparagopsis seaweed-based livestock feed additive, which successfully reduced methane emissions from cattle by over 80% in trials – while Royal DSM has produced Bovaer, a methane-curbing supplement that is expected to enter the EU market in 2022.

Elsewhere, Zelp (Zero Emissions Livestock Project) has developed a mask for cows, which operates similarly to a car’s catalytic converter, limiting emissions by 60% by converting emissions from cattle burps to CO2. It’s probably worth nothing that fitting wearable devices to livestock, however climate-beneficial they may be, may prove unpopular for eco-conscious consumers.

Incentivising more sustainable diets that include plant-based foods with lower emissions could also help. Imposing a meat tax, or a “sustainability charge”, on high-emitting foods in the EU could reduce emissions and raise €32bn annually – which could support farmers to move away from emissions-intensive meat production.

Lateral thought from Curation – With interest growing in lower-emitting substitutes, could we avoid all these concerns by growing meat in a lab? There are benefits – the practice requires less water, and is clearly better for animal welfare – but in terms of emissions, it may not provide a simple solution.

A study focusing on this area found the highest emissions footprint from lab-grown meat to be around 25 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of cultured meat. The problem was, the majority of this is in the form of CO2 and as this accumulates in the atmosphere for longer when compared to methane, it poses more of a long-term climate problem. Transitioning to a low-carbon energy system could aid the viability of cultured meat production as a climatically better alternative.

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