Among animal proteins, sustainable seafood has the smallest environmental footprint. 05/22/2020
To help combat climate change and protect the planet, you might buy a more fuel-efficient car, fly less often or even install solar panels on your home. But have you thought about changing your diet?
Not all food groups are created equal when it comes to their climate impact. Far from it, in fact. Meat, especially feedlot-raised red meat, has a larger climate footprint than seafood and plant-based options. One gram of protein from beef, much of which is raised industrially using feedlots, produces over 300 times its weight in carbon dioxide equivalent, according to 2013 estimates from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Industrial scale livestock farming requires vast quantities of crops for animal feed, and the transportation needs lead to high levels of greenhouse gasses. What’s more, the animals themselves expel methane. All in all, conventionally raised red meat is simply worse for the environment than most other options.
That’s why getting your protein from seafood or vegetables is an important step toward mitigating climate change.
Environmentally Friendly Protein
Among animal proteins, seafood has the smallest environmental footprint, according to a 2019 report from the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets From Sustainable Systems. Some have criticized the report, suggesting it’s not practical to expect people to eat as many vegetables as it recommends. However, the report does note that seafood can offer a healthy and sustainable alternative to conventionally raised red meat.
That group is far from the first to suggest seafood’s virtues. For example, if everyone in the world switched to a pescatarian diet, one study estimates we could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food production by 45 percent (Tillman D 2014).
“Food from the sea, produced using best practices, can (with some notable exceptions) have some of the lowest GHG emissions per unit of protein produced of all protein sources,” say the authors of a 2019 report from the High Level Panel for A Sustainable Ocean Economy. The report identifies a shift away from protein sources like industrial livestock and toward ocean and plant-based options as the single greatest dietary change we can make to help the planet.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Diet
Raising cattle using the feedlot system that’s common in the U.S. requires large amounts of land, feed and water — all scarce resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.
That said, it’s important to note that cattle can be raised in many ways. The American industrial system, largely dependent upon inefficient feedlots to fatten cattle before slaughter, is slowly giving way to more sustainable cattle management techniques that can dramatically reduce carbon emissions and actually increase the land’s biodiversity.
As one study put it, “…livestock can play a sizable role in climate mitigation. Of 80 ways to alleviate climate change, regenerative agriculture—managed grazing, silvopasture, tree intercropping, conservation agriculture, and farmland restoration—jointly rank number one as ways to sequester GHG” (Provenza FD et al, 2019).
In contrast to industrial cattle, which are fed a diet of corn and soy that must itself be farmed, grass-fed, grass-finished cattle get their feed by grazing in open pastures, cutting down on the need for industrial feed, and freeing land once used for feed crops.
So if you eat beef, take heart – you can help the planet! Seek out grass-fed, grass-finished, “certified humane” varieties, such as our Skagit River Ranch Wagyu Beef.
Meanwhile, there are other options for healthy, tasty protein. Sustainable seafood, including fresh, wild-caught salmon has a climate footprint that’s far smaller than conventional beef and other livestock. And fish caught in the wild can be sourced sustainably, meaning we can rely on natural populations to feed ourselves without intensive breeding and care.
Sustainable fishing reduces bycatch, allows wild fish to maintain healthy population levels and generally keeps ecosystems intact. Fishing also beats conventional livestock in another big way: it doesn’t sap precious water resources. Feedlot-raised cattle rely on heavily-irrigated crops for food, as opposed to pastures. That irrigation adds up to a lot of excess water — whereas seafood needs nothing more than the water it swims in.
Some types of shellfish, too, like Pacific and Kumamoto oysters, are labeled as a “best choice” for the environment by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. These tasty shellfish offer another way to add planet-friendly diversity to your plate because they can be harvested sustainably and without damaging critical habitats or populations.
Sustainable Seafood Key for Climate
There are some exceptions to the climate-friendly nature of seafood. Some fishing practices use high levels of fuel, or are damaging to ocean ecosystems or species. This includes trawling, which involves dragging nets across the seafloor. It’s both fuel inefficient and potentially harmful to ocean communities (Davie S 2014). As a result, trawling fishing boats emit three times as much carbon per gram of protein as non-trawling boats (Tillman D 2014). The locations where fish is harvested and processed can affect its climate impact as well. For example, catching fish and shipping it vast distances for processing is obviously worse from a climate perspective.
But fish can be caught, processed and shipped sustainably. For example, Vital Choice’s salmon is harvested with environmentally-friendly fishing techniques like purse seine nets, gillnets and trolling (using baited lines) - all methods that don’t damage the seafloor or use excessive amounts of fuel. The Alaskan salmon runs our fish comes from are widely considered to be sustainable. And, as we’ve written before, wild, frozen seafood has been found to be more environmentally friendly than fresh or farmed fish.
All told, healthy eating will also help us on our path toward living more harmoniously with our planet. We may have to change our lifestyles to accommodate a changing climate. But, with the right choices, we’ll still be eating delicious foods.
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