Should you consider the climate impact of your cheese consumption?
Meat is often the first thing people cut out when shifting to a more environmentally-friendly diet. The EAT-Lancet Commission, a study released earlier this year, advised eating less red meat and embracing a predominantly plant-based diet as part of a shift toward a healthier, more sustainable diet. But what about cheese?
A study published in the Lancet revealed that a vegan diet – no meat, eggs, or dairy — can reduce one’s environmental impact by up to 84 percent compared to a meat-heavy diet.
The increasingly popular flexitarian diet is typically framed as eating less meat, rather than fewer animal products overall. Cheese is often not mentioned at all – but how does it stand up to beef, chicken, pork, and other meats?
Cheese or Beef – Which Is Worse for the Planet?
When it comes to a side-by-side comparison, beef is more damaging to the planet than cheese and other dairy products. A 2011 report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) titled “Meat Eaters’ Guide to Climate Change + Health” revealed that cheese generates the third-highest greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), behind lamb and beef. The majority of emissions occur during the production phase.
But cheese is far worse than fruits and vegetables – roughly 85 percent more harmful that beans, tofu, and broccoli.
Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Manure, and the Planet
The EWG report notes that the high GHGs from cattle in the beef and dairy industries are due to their ruminant nature; they are animals with a digestive process called “enteric fermentation.” (It is also shared by sheep, goats, and buffalo.) Enteric fermentation involves microbes in the animals’ digestive tracts that break down and ferment food, producing methane in the process. Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2).
According to the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, enteric fermentation from animals used in the meat and milk industries account for as much as 30 percent of human-caused methane emissions.
Feed quality, the size of the animal, and temperature are other factors that can affect methane emissions. Most livestock in the US is fed on a diet of fishmeal, corn, soybean meal, and other grains, all of which contribute to beef and cheese’s large carbon footprint. Feed crops for cattle require large quantities of land, pesticides, and nitrogen fertilizer, which generate nitrous oxide (N20) – a greenhouse gas that has 300 times the warming effect of CO2.
Cattle waste also releases N20 in addition to methane. Livestock in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) contributed 500 million tons of manure in 2007, three times the amount of human waste produced in the US. Manure is not only the fastest-growing major source of methane, but it also has an adverse effect on the planet and human health.
Manure is known to leach pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics and heavy metals into groundwater when too much is spread on farm fields from storage facilities called “lagoons.” Food Print notes that sometimes even dead animals may be in lagoons. While humane waste is treated at plants, animal waste is not and is often applied, untreated, to farm fields.
Most lagoons are lined only with clay, so it is easy for it to seep into groundwater. Further, excess amounts of manure are often applied to crop fields and the excess runs off into rivers and streams. This leads to dead zones – areas of the ocean that are completely devoid of plant and animal life.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the largest ever measured at 8,776 square miles – an area roughly the size of New Jersey – according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Are Beef and Cheese Unhealthy?
Consumption of beef and dairy is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
A growing body of medical studies shows that a plant-based diet may be the healthiest. One report by the World Cancer Research Fund found that avoiding animal products, alcohol, and sugary drinks and adopting a regular exercise regime can reduce one’s cancer risk by as much as 40 percent.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an organization of over 12,000 medical members, maintains that a plant-based diet is the key to long-term good health, particularly in preventing heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, and premature death. Its founder, Dr. Neal Barnard, was awarded by the Medical Society of the District of Columbia for his work in disease prevention through diet.
In his 2017 book “The Cheese Trap,” Barnard examines how cheese cravings are actually similar to addiction. Forbes reports that cheese contains a protein called casein that contains a fragment known as casomorphins. Casomorphins are an opiod peptide, which attaches itself to the same brain receptors as narcotics.
“These opiates attach to the same brain receptors that heroin and morphine attach to. They are not strong enough to get you arrested, but they are just strong enough to keep you coming back for more, even while your thighs are expanding before your very eyes,” Barnard wrote.
Are meat and cheese unhealthy? Governments are also beginning to realize the importance of a diet rich in plant-based food. While meat and dairy were once considered essential to good health, Canada’s most recent Food Guide nearly eliminated dairy. It now emphasizes eating vegan protein more often than meat, fish, cheese, and eggs. The Canadian government even invested $153 million in the nation’s emerging plant-based protein industries.
Aside from the way animal-based foods affect our bodies, the environmentally-damaging methods of the factory farming industry can also damage human health.
According to the EWG, when animal waste decomposes, it releases pollutants such as dust, smog, odors, and toxic gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. These all lower air quality and have been shown to cause asthma, itching, and dizziness in workers and nearby towns. Living near a factory farm has also been shown to increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes, damage the nervous system, and affect child brain development or cause birth defects.
Beef and Cheese vs. Plant-Based Protein
The EWG also notes that ruminants require more energy-intensive feed than pork or chicken, which contributes to the higher carbon footprint of beef and cheese compared to other animal-based foods. Beef emits more than twice the GHGs of pork, almost four times that of chicken, and 13 times the amount of emissions than plant-based protein like beans, lentils, and tofu.
There are other ways that beef and cheese contribute to GHGs, such as through growing, processing, and transporting food for farm animals. It generally takes many more resources such as land and water to produce meat and cheese than it does for vegan food.
Food waste also plays a role – “Most of the emissions attributed to waste come from producing food that is ultimately discarded – from fertilizer and pesticide production, growing feed, transportation, etc” says the EWG.
How do meat and cheese square up against plant-based food? One study from Loma Linda University compared beef to beans; researchers found that beans require one-twentieth the land per unit of protein consumed compared to beef.
The beef industry also calls for more water, which is used to hydrate cattle, grow food, rinse equipment, etc. Kidney beans need just a tenth of the water required by the beef industry. Taking shorter showers is often advertised as a way to conserve water, but its impact is minuscule compared to going vegan or vegetarian.
It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. According to EcoWatch, 3.5 pounds of beef, or 10 hamburgers, is the equivalent of not showering for one year. Ditching meat completely can reduce your water footprint by nearly 60 percent.
Less research has been done on the specifics of cheese. According to the University of Wisconsin’s paper, “Understand the Carbon Footprint of Cheese,” it takes 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese and one pound of milk produces 1.2 kg of CO2.
“You’re producing the milk from a dairy cow that is emitting large quantities of methane, which has a global-warming impact 25 times higher than carbon,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior analyst at EWG. “And then you have the methane and nitrous oxide that are also generated from the cow’s manure. And then all of the grains that go into feeding the cows, which range from corn to alfalfa and other forage, and there’s a footprint associated with that.”
This is all before the milk is made into cheese – the older the cheese, the higher its carbon footprint. According to Grist, goat cheeses have about the same impact as cow cheese, while sheep cheeses are worse.
A 2010 report from the FAO titled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions From the Dairy Sector“ revealed that cheese processing requires more energy and emits more GHGs compared to any other dairy product, primarily from food combustion. Overall, the dairy sector accounts for four percent of all total GHGs.
Overall, raising beef uses 10 times more resources than dairy, poultry, eggs, and pork, according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research found that beef requires 28 times more land, six times the fertilizer, and 11 times the water compared to the other food sources, contributing five times more GHGs. Plant-based crops like rice, potatoes, and wheat called for two to six times less the resources.
Which Diet is Most Sustainable?
Can a sustainable diet include meat? A 2014 analysis of four diets – vegan, vegetarian, pescetarians, and meat-eaters – published in the journal Climactic Health found that a vegan diet has the lowest carbon footprint.
Even meat-eaters who reported eating very little meat (50 grams or less a day – the equivalent of a few slices of cold cuts) contributed more GHGs than vegetarians. Vegans had the lowest environmental impact. Meat-eaters’ carbon emissions were on average 50-54 percent higher than vegetarians and 99-102 percent higher than vegans.
Plant-based diets aren’t without an environmental impact. According to the EWG, the transportation phase accounts for the majority of GHGs from plant-based crops – about 23 percent of broccoli’s, 15 percent of lentil’s and tofu’s, 12 percent of nuts’, and 9 percent of potatoes’.
Buying locally-grown produce, if the option is available, could potentially cut one’s carbon footprint by 10-30 percent, depending on the crop. In contrast, buying local beef reduces meat’s impact by only 1-3 percent.
Research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters last August found that grass-fed beef– once thought to be a sustainable alternative to factory farm-raised meat – isn’t ideal. There would not be enough land to switch to a grass-fed beef system, despite the myth that it’s better for the planet.
Sustainable Options for Beef and Cheese?
Although meat and dairy were once staples of the western diet, increased awareness of its detrimental effects on the planet, human health, and the animal involved has led to more vegan options on the market. Sales of plant-based food in the US surpassed $3.7 billion last year, according to data from the Good Food Institute.
A similar report from the Plant Based Foods Association, an organization representing more than 100 top vegan brands in the US, found that plant-based food sales outpaced overall food sales last year. In 2017, vegan food sales grew by only 8 percent.
Vegan meat and cheese are becoming increasingly more mainstream. The Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger – both made to look, cook, and taste like beef – have earned the attention of major retailers and restaurant chains like Carl’s Jr., A&W, and White Castle and have raked in major sales. The Impossible Burger, which was once available only to restaurants, is set to make its retail debut later this year.
Vegan cheese is also becoming more readily available, driven by demand; emerging companies make healthier, more sustainable cheeses from plant-based ingredients. In the UK, mainstream pizza chains are embracing vegan cheese – Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Papa John’s all offer dairy-free cheese toppings as an option.
Image credit: FAO | EWG