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To eat beef or not to eat beef?

Reducing your consumption of beef can be climate-friendly, but things are not that simple. Researchers are trying to nuance the climate debate by showing the full picture.

2019.06.27 | Janne Hansen

Beef consumption is responsible for 11 percent of the carbon footprint of our total diet including beverages. Photo: Colourbox

What is the climate effect of beef when you look at the whole chain from primary production and slaughterhouse to preparation in the home, including the food wasted along the way? Researchers from Aarhus University and the National Food Institute have investigated this. Their results are now available in a report published by DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University (In Danish). 

The researchers looked into the carbon footprint in relation to beef’s nutritional value and in relation to the carbon footprint from a Danish total diet. 

- We have tried to provide a scientifically based analysis of beef’s total environmental impact with a focus on the carbon footprint. We have looked at beef in relation to its nutritional value and in relation to the carbon footprint of the total diet. This can contribute to a more nuanced debate about the climate and environmental impacts of beef, says Associate Professor Lisbeth Mogensen from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University and one of the researchers behind the study.  

One of the aims of the project was to reveal the hotspots in beef’s life cycle and thereby enable farmers, slaughterhouses, retailers and consumers to act in a climate-friendly way. 

Beef is not just beef

The researchers quantified the carbon footprint of beef and veal throughout the value chain, i.e. from the cattle in the barn and the feed crop in the field, to the slaughterhouse, retailer and consumer kitchen.   

Recent Danish research shows that there are significant differences between types of beef. If you buy minced beef originating from a dairy breed, the carbon footprint is 11 kg CO2-equivalents per kg beef. If, on the other hand, you choose minced beef from beef breed e.g. a Limousin calf, then the carbon footprint is 32 kg CO2-equivalents per kg beef. 

Read The environmental impact of beef. 

You cannot just exchange 100 grams of a foodstuff with 100 grams of another foodstuff in order to save on the carbon footprint without consequences for the nutrient composition of your diet. Things are more complicated. The researchers tried to find a way to express the carbon footprint of a foodstuff in relation to its nutritional value in one figure or index, but without success. 

- Our results showed that comparisons of foodstuffs’ carbon footprints in relation to their nutritional values is most meaningful for foods that can be used in the diet in the same way, e.g. foods within a foodstuff group, says Lisbeth Mogensen and continues: 

- It is also important to capture the complexity of foodstuffs’ nutritional compositions. Data from national Danish diet studies show promise in this regard. They relate the carbon footprint for foodstuffs and food groups to the carbon footprint for the total diet, and compare to the diet’s nutrient content in relation to recommendations and requirements. 

We should change our habits

Our consumption of beef is responsible for 11 percent of our carbon footprint from the total diet including beverages. In comparison, stimulants (coffee, tea, alcohol, candy, cake and sweet beverages) are responsible for 28 percent of the carbon footprint from the total diet including beverages. In the new report, the researchers suggest ways in which to reduce the carbon footprint from beef and from the diet as a whole. 

  • The carbon footprint per kg beef can be reduced if farmers can reduce their cattle’s methane emissions or increase feed efficiency (via genetics and feeding). 
  • If slaughterhouses make use of more of the carcass for food, there is potential for a 17-23 percent smaller carbon footprint per kg beef.
  • Choose beef from dairy breeds. It has only about one third of the carbon footprint of that from beef breeds.
  • Retailers and especially consumers can reduce the carbon footprint from the diet by up to 14 percent by reducing their food waste.
  • If consumers reduce their consumption of stimulants, they can theoretically reduce their diets’ carbon footprint by up to 25 percent. 
  • There is a potential 20-35 percent reduction in the carbon footprint from the diet if consumers become vegetarian.
  • If consumers reduce their consumption of beef and eat other foods instead, then the carbon footprint from the diet can be reduced by 5-10 percent.

You can download the report ”Okse- og kalvekøds klimapåvirkning gennem hele værdikæden sammenholdt med ernæringsperspektiver i forskellige kostmønstre”, DCA report no. 158, June 2019 (in Danish).

For more information please contact

Associate Professor Lisbeth Mogensen, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University, email: lisbeth.mogensen@agro.au.dk, telephone: +45 8715 8025

Senior Researcher Ellen Trolle, National Food Institute, email: eltr@food.dtu.dk, telephone +45 3588 7421

Agro, Food, DCA