Are you trying to make more sustainable choices when it comes to your diet?
You may have heard that beef is one of the worst meats for the environment, but what about lamb?
While it may seem like a healthier and more eco-friendly option, recent studies have shown that lamb actually has a higher carbon footprint than beef.
But why is this the case? And what other factors should you consider when choosing between these two meats?
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the sustainability of lamb and beef, and help you make an informed decision about which meat to choose.
Is Lamb More Sustainable Than Beef?
When it comes to sustainability, not all meats are created equal. While lamb may seem like a more sustainable option than beef, recent studies have shown that this is not necessarily the case.
One of the main reasons for this is that sheep, like cows, are ruminant animals that produce a lot of methane during digestion. In fact, lamb produces about 50% more methane gas than beef, according to a lifestyle assessment by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change.
Additionally, lamb produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight, which means that more resources are required to produce the same amount of meat compared to beef. This results in a higher carbon footprint for lamb compared to beef.
However, it’s important to note that lamb is still a more sustainable option than some other meats, such as pork and chicken. Research published in Ecological Indicators found that producing lamb meat comes with a smaller land and water footprint than cattle require.
The Environmental Impact Of Beef
Beef production has a significant impact on the environment due to the emissions of greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. Ruminant animals, including cattle, have lower growth and reproduction rates than pigs and poultry, which means they require a higher amount of feed per unit of meat produced. Animal feed requires land to grow, which has a carbon cost associated with it. Beef is more resource-intensive to produce than most other kinds of meat, and animal-based foods overall are more resource-intensive than plant-based foods.
According to research, beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more GHG emissions per gram of edible protein than common plant proteins, such as beans. The majority of the world’s grasslands cannot grow crops or trees, and such “native grasslands” are already heavily used for livestock production, meaning additional beef demand will likely increase pressure on forests.
Beef production is also a considerable contributor to climate change. Ruminant livestock accounts for between 7% and 18% of global methane emissions from human-related activities. Beef is the biggest offender among all meats, generating 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat produced – more than twice the emissions of the next most polluting food, lamb. Cows and sheep produce large quantities of methane as a byproduct of the ruminant digestive process which relies on specialized bacteria that can break down grass. Methane is up to 34 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2.
Another way meat contributes to climate change is via the destruction of forests and other habitats to make way for pasture and fodder for cattle. With a rise in beef consumption in countries that have witnessed increasing prosperity, such as China, cattle farming has become extremely lucrative. In pursuit of profits, ranchers have destroyed hundreds of thousands of square miles of rainforest around the world – vital, biodiverse ecosystems that capture millions of tons of CO2 when undisturbed.
While some beef farms using sustainable methods have less impact on the environment than others, it’s important to note that beef production still carries an enormous environmental footprint. Land and water degradation, deforestation, acid rain, biodiversity loss, and even coral reef degeneration are just some of the negative impacts associated with beef production.
The Environmental Impact Of Lamb
The environmental impact of lamb is significant due to the high levels of methane produced during digestion, as well as the resources required to produce the meat. According to the Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change and Health report, lamb has the highest carbon footprint of all meats, producing an average of 20.44 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of product. This is due to the fact that sheep are ruminant animals that release methane in their belches and waste, which is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that producing 1 pound of lamb produces more emissions than the same serving of beef. Lamb produces about 50% more methane gas than beef, which makes it even more damaging to the environment. In addition, lamb produces less edible meat relative to the sheep’s live weight, which means that more resources are required to produce the same amount of meat compared to beef. This results in a higher carbon footprint for lamb compared to beef.
It’s important to note that the environmental impact of lamb will vary depending on whether it’s homegrown or imported from other countries. The emissions produced post-farmgate, which includes transporting the product from the barn to your plate, will also have a significant impact on its overall sustainability.
Factors That Affect Meat Sustainability
There are several factors that affect the sustainability of meat production. One of the biggest concerns is the sourcing of feed for livestock. Large monoculture crop fields dedicated to feeding livestock have resulted in deforestation and clearance of native ecosystems, which releases carbon pollution and contributes to climate change. These crop fields are also treated with toxic chemicals and fertilizers, which can runoff into surrounding waterways and harm the environment.
Another issue is manure processing. Manure is typically stored in open lagoons that are susceptible to overflow during flooding or leakage due to faults. This releases harmful substances like antibiotics, bacteria, pesticides, and heavy metals into the surrounding environment. As the manure decomposes, it releases emissions including methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide which further contribute to climate change.
Livestock themselves also emit methane during digestion, which is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change. The processing and transportation of animals also result in further emissions.
To address these concerns, sustainable feed sourcing and responsible manure management are crucial. Meat should be raised on feed from suppliers implementing practices to prevent agricultural run-off pollution, soil erosion, and native ecosystem clearance across their supply chain. Nutrient optimization plans should be implemented to prevent excess fertilizer application, and cover crops and conservation tillage should be used to protect soil health and reduce run-off. Policies against clearing native ecosystems should also be in place.
Centralized processing facilities should be provided for manure management, and policies against placing new or expanding CAFOs in watersheds already classified as “impaired” from nutrient pollution should be implemented.
Finally, time-bound goals to reduce emissions across the supply chain should be set, and meat suppliers should be required to reduce emissions from direct and contract suppliers as well as feed production. By implementing these measures, the meat industry can become more sustainable and reduce its impact on the environment.
Comparing Nutritional Value
When it comes to nutritional value, lamb and beef are relatively similar as both are types of red meat. However, there are some differences worth noting.
Lamb has slightly more calories and fat compared to beef, but similar quantities of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Lamb contains more selenium, while beef boasts more zinc. Both lamb and beef are a good source of iron, specifically heme iron, which is the more bioavailable type than the iron found in plants.
Despite being slightly lower in protein than beef, lamb is richer in all of the essential amino acids—especially tryptophan, by about three times more than beef. Plus, both lamb and beef contain the healthy fat conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been linked to weight loss and cardiovascular, metabolic, and cognitive health. Lamb contains a bit more CLA than beef.
It’s important to note that the nutritional values of both lamb and beef can vary widely depending on the cuts and fat percentages used. Additionally, grass-fed lamb and beef have healthier fat composition, more micronutrients, and antioxidants compared to grain-fed options.
Sustainable Alternatives To Beef And Lamb
If you’re looking for more sustainable alternatives to beef and lamb, there are several options to consider. Poultry, such as turkey and chicken, require less land, feed, and water than beef or lamb, making them a more sustainable option. Pork also has a lower environmental impact than beef and lamb, and pork producers use at least 75% less water than beef producers.
Fish is another sustainable option, as fishing requires less land and resources than livestock maintenance. However, it’s important to note that negative impacts vary significantly by species, location, husbandry methods, and other factors. Sustainably caught and farm-raised fish are generally good choices.
For a hearty red meat option, ostrich meat is a sustainable replacement for beef. Ostriches produce significantly less methane gas than beef, lamb or pork during their digestive process. They also require dramatically less water and land to raise compared to beef.
In addition to meat options, there are plant-based alternatives that are eco-friendly. Beans, jackfruit, lentils, seitan, tempeh, and tofu are all sustainable options for those looking to reduce their meat consumption. These plant-based meat alternatives require less water and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional meats.