The negative impacts of red meat on people and planet are old news – yesterday’s fish and chip paper even (just make sure that cod’s sustainable). Yet, the matter of meat eating and its consequences are still making the headlines. From high-profile organisations banishing beef from their menus, to studies that argue red meat should be back on our plates, there’s a meaty minefield of information out there that can contradict and confuse. We’ve taken a look into the research, old and new, to get a clearer picture of where things stand today.

Carbon emissions

In 2014, a study conducted by University of Oxford scientists highlighted just how harmful the production and consumption of meat is to our planet. Their findings concluded that meat eaters’ diets produce double the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the diets of vegans. Just a year later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) underscored the potential health risks of some meats to humans, citing red and processed meats as a carcinogen – giving it the same ranking at cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos.

Despite the guidelines and warnings that came about in the wake of these findings, total global meat consumption has grown by 20% over the last 10 years. Globally, the meat industry generates around a fifth of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that arise as a result of human activity – that’s more than the entire transportation sector. UK farms are responsible for some 45.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions a year – about 10% of the UK’s total GHGs. By comparison, fruit and vegetable production accounts for around 2.5%.

In 2019, a group of UK scientists looked into the carbon emissions of a typical family barbecue for the ongoing Take A Bite research initiative. They calculated that a medium-sized beef burger releases the same amount of GHG as a 15-mile car ride. The plant-based alternative – a large vegetarian sausage – equates to a 0.8-mile car journey, whilst the white-meat option – a 100g chicken breast – would pluck up 1.4 mile’s worth of CO2 emissions.

Digest these tidbits and it becomes clear that the cost of meat far surmounts the total it rings up at the till.

Reducing the impact

In June this year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. Just two months later, Goldsmiths University took beef off their café menus as part of their commitment to become carbon neutral by 2025. However, both were pipped to the eco-efforts post by the University of Cambridge; they removed beef and lamb from their menus in 2016 as part of their then-new Sustainable Food Policy.

In an effort to reduce their food-related carbon emissions, Cambridge’s University Catering Service (UCS) also removed unsustainable fish from its menus and promoted their plant-based food options over their meat-based meals. But this wasn’t just a box-ticking exercise; they also trained their chefs in vegan cooking and their managers on marketing for sustainability over profit.

The results speak for themselves, and provide an important insight for anyone (individual or otherwise) who’s interested in their food-related environmental impact. Despite an increase in food costs, the UCS increased their profits by 2% and reduced their overall carbon emissions by 10.5%. Importantly, customers weren’t put off by the changes either, as they have retained the same level of footfall.

A tasty take away for food-related businesses, but if you’re an individual without a meat-managed menu, how can you contribute to the carbon-slashing cause?

Individual actions

Earlier this year, The Telegraph reported on the first National Trust Pub to hand the decision over to their customers when it comes to their individual food-related carbon footprint – by printing each dish’s carbon emissions next to it on the menu. An average Brit produces around 9kg of emissions a day through eating and drinking (depending on their diet), so you’d be pushing it with the pub’s locally sourced-lamb and damson stew, which devours 35% of the national average.

Some of the UK’s most popular foods have been catalogued alongside their carbon emissions, giving rise to games that help us to understand their impact better. The Climate Food Challenge tests your knowledge on the emissions of plant- and animal-based products as you place items in order against the clock, whilst the BBC’s Climate Change Food Calculator lists 34 popular foods and determines their carbon emissions based on how many times a week you eat them. Useful stuff when you’re deliberating between peas and potatoes at the supermarket (peas win, by the way, with just under half the amount of GHG emissions as potatoes).

Benefits to human health

It’s not just the planet’s health that would improve with a reduction in meat consumption; it can have significant benefits to human health too.

In April this year, the International Journal of Epidemiology published the results of a five-year a study of half a million men and women that linked the consumption of red and processed meat with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. It concluded that the UK government guidelines for recommended intake of red and processed meat (less than or equal to 90g per day) was way off the mark, as eating an average 76g per day increased the risk of bowel cancer by 20%, compared with those who averaged 21g a day. The UK’s recommended daily intake has since reduced to 70g.

Just last month, the American College of Physicians put forward a differing view, suggesting that the majority of people should continue their red and processed meat consumption as normal. However, they class their own recommendation as ‘weak’ as it’s based on low-quality evidence. The study has also come under fire for neglecting to consider the environmental impact of meat production entirely, particularly if the study’s intent is to influence policy making.

Whilst government guidelines can be helpful and expert-led strategies can be useful for the health of people and planet, its personal policies that matter the most. Author, journalist and activist Michael Pollan advocates the power of a person’s plate in influencing the state of things from a micro to a macro level. If “how we should eat, and how what we eat affects both our health and the health of the world” is a political question, Pollan suggests voting with your fork.