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The importance of beef to climate, land use and nutrition

An article in the scientific journal ”Foods” describes various Danish dietary patterns and their impact on carbon footprint, land use and nutrition, focusing on the importance of beef in various dietary patterns. The article is based on an analysis of the production of different beef products as well as the total climate impact of the entire production and value chain ranging from farming and slaughterhouses to the consumer, thus also including the impact of loss and energy used for storage and preparation of meals.

2020.09.29 | Claus Bo Andreasen

Photo: Jesper Rais, AU Foto.

In Denmark, as well as in the rest of the world, there is a huge desire to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) that cause climate changes. One of the major sources of GHG emissions is food consumption. Globally, approx. 25 % of the climate impact may be ascribed to the production and consumption of foods.

It is well recognized that meat, especially beef, is related to a high climate impact per kg food, but also that significant differences exist in the climate impact from various beef products just as the consumption of beef products may vary depending on dietary patterns, and thus also in beef contribution to the climate impact of diets.

In a scientific article, researchers from Aarhus University (AU) and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have quantified the carbon  footprint for various types of beef products eaten in Denmark, in the entire chain ranging from farm to consumer. These data have been used to determine carbon footprint, land use and nutritional value of typical, Danish dietary patterns as well as the importance of substituting beef with other foods in these dietary patterns.

The research was previously published in a DCA report that was subsequently withdrawn (please cf. below). Compared to the DCA report, the scientific article has been brought up to date by using new data.

The climate and nutritional impact of beef in different dietary patterns

The article estimates that the carbon footprint for ready-to-eat beef products – including the impact of food waste, preparation waste and energy consumption used in food preparation – varies between 18.7 kg CO2 eq./kg (mincemeat) and 25.5 CO2 eq./kg (roast beef). The differences are due to different sourcing of beef from dairy and beef breed-based systems, respectively, and the fact that trimming and cooking loss is higher for roast beef compared to other beef products. By comparison, the climate impact of pork has been estimated to be 7.4 CO2 eq./kg, milk is 1.2 CO2 eq./kg and peas 0.7 CO2 eq./kg (ready-to-eat products).

Based on four typical dietary patterns – “Traditional diet”, “Fastfood diet”, “Green diet” and “High beef intake diet” – the daily beef intake was estimated to be 25, 28, 20 and 50 g per 10 MJ, respectively. In these dietary patterns, the beef contributions constituted 12, 14, 9 and 20 %, respectively, of the diet’s total climate impact. Three patterns (“Traditional”, “Fastfood” and “Green”) had been identified in a previous study, but all dietary patterns are based on data from national studies of the Danes’ diets and physical activities (2005-08) and standardized to a daily energy intake of 10 MJ.

The nutritional composition of the above diets varied; however, the Green diet came closest in fulfilling the official Danish dietary advice and nutritional recommendations. The “High beef intake” diet had the highest carbon footprint, being 16-19 % higher than the climate impact for the Green and Fastfood diets, which are only slightly lower than the impact of the “Traditional” diet as well as the average diet.

A theoretical calculation of the achievable impact of replacing beef by other protein-rich foods demonstrated that such a substitution may actually reduce the climate impact of diets. In relation to the three dietary patterns (Traditional, Fastfood and Green diets), it was possible to reduce the environmental impact by up to 12 %. The biggest reduction was achieved when beef was replaced by eggs and legumes. The results further showed that such substitutions affected the nutrient contents, which increased or decreased depending on the selected substitution. The results indicate that the appropriate combination of foods will allow us to maintain – and in some instances even improve – the nutritional quality of the diet.

Compared to international studies, the estimated carbon footprint from beef eaten in Denmark is relatively low per Dane per day. This is due to a relatively low beef content in diets, and also that a major part of the beef produced in Denmark comes from dairy production and the total climate impact is distributed between dairy products and beef.

In previous studies of different production systems, researchers have demonstrated that the carbon footprint of beef cattle may be up to four times bigger per kg meat compared to beef from dairy cows. You can download the publication “Environmental Impact of Beef” here. (HUSK LINK)

In this study, the researchers assumed that the imported beef has the same carbon footprint per kg meat as the corresponding Danish beef products – however, climate impact from transport has been added.

Initiatives to reduce dietary climate impact

In accordance with literary studies, this study indicates that even though a dietary pattern follows the health-based nutritional recommendations, the carbon footprint may not necessarily be significantly lower compared to that of an average diet. This suggests that there is a need to supplement the dietary advice with recommendations to make diets healthier and more climate-friendly.

The study demonstrated that the intake of stimulants (alcohol, coffee, tea and sweet drinks – not including milk and juice – as well as snacks, cakes, candy and other sugary foods) constitutes approx. 27 % of dietary carbon footprint. Often, stimulants may be completely or partially replaced with foods that have a higher nutritional value and a lower carbon footprint.

First and foremost, the study points out that beef may be replaced by other foods that are more climate friendly, but the climate impact will depend very much on the foods replacing the beef, and it will influence the diet’s nutritional quality. The article indicates that – in addition to beef – pork constitutes a significantly higher share of the total meat consumption in typical Danish dietary patterns. The importance of reducing, or completely avoiding, all types of meat in diets was not examined in this study, however, other studies indicate that a vegetarian diet may significantly reduce climate footprint as well as land use.

Further, the article emphasizes that the carbon footprint of the diet may be reduced by avoiding food waste. The analyses showed that 12-13 % of carbon footprint and 13 % of land use may be ascribed to avoidable food waste.


Further information
The scientific articleThe scientific article ”Climate and Nutritional Impact of Beef in Different Dietary Patterns in Denmark” is written by Lisbeth Mogensen and John E. Hermansen from Aarhus University and Ellen Trolle from the Technical University of Denmark. You can find the article via this link.
CooperationThe work efforts were part of a major project ”Assessment of the environmental impact of beef”, which was carried out in cooperation with representatives from Danish Crown and the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. In the scientific article, the cooperation partners involved are thanked for their contributions to the efforts. Cf. Acknowledgement at the end of the article. 
FundingThe research is funded partly by the Danish Agriculture and Food Council and partly by Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University, and DTU Food. Work efforts in relation to dietary patterns are based on previous research funded by The Danish Dairy Research Foundation.
ContactClaus Bo Andreasen, DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture. Tel.: 4079 8032. Mail clausbo.andreasen@dca.au.dk     

DCA, Agro