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Climate change and a responsible diet

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, livestock farming contributes more to global warming than total worldwide transportation. Nevertheless, this is still consistently ignored in the majority of discussions about climate. This page, therefore, highlights the (often uncomfortable) truth regarding the connection between our own diet and climate change on the basis of statements from internationally recognised organisations.

International Panel for Sustainable Resorce Management des United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)

This new report form the UN from June 2010 is very clear:

Agriculture and food consumption are identified as one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, water use and toxic emissions. [page 13]

Both emissions and land use depend strongly on diets. Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives. [page 79]

Currently about half of the world’s land is used for agriculture and 70% of total water use. [page 66]

A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products. [page 82]

Link to the full report: Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations

The international nutritional organisation FAO has published a report of over 400 pages on the connection between animal husbandry and climate change. The press release from the UNO on this report and a link to the complete study in pdf format can be found here: Livestock a major threat to environment

The central statement of the press release is as follows:

According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation. [1]

In a recent interview the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Rajendra Pachauri was asked: "What do you personally do for climate protection?" He answered:

I am trying to live modestly and avoid waste. Furthermore I have become a vegetarian because the production of only one kilogram of meat sets some kilograms of CO2 free.

Source/German: Migros-Magazin Nr. 38, 17. Sept. 2007

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, answered to the question waht he does for the climat:

Rajendra Pachauri: "Please eat less meat — meat is a very carbon intensive commodity."


Rajendra Pachauri: "Surveys show people are anxious about their personal carbon footprints and cutting back on car journeys and so on; but they may not realise that changing what's on their plate could have an even bigger effect."

BBC, 7.9.2008

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore share the Nobel peace prize 2007 for their educational work on global warming.

UN climate agency (UNFCCC)

The head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Yvo de Boer, suggested:

The best solution would be for us all to become vegetarians

Source: The Guardian, BBC and Reuters, 2. June 2008

Max Planck Society

The Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology Ralf Conrad on the problem of global warming:

In short, the motto could be: Don’t eat any more cows, give up dairy products. [2]

The reasoning: cows produce a lot of methane, which is much more damaging to the climate than CO2.

University of Chicago

We examine the greenhouse gas emissions associated with plant- and animalbased diets [...] We conclude that a person consuming a mixed diet with the mean American caloric content and composition causes the emissions of 1485 kg CO2-equivalent above the emissions associated with consuming the same number of calories, but from plant sources. Far from trivial, nationally this difference amounts to over 6% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the study of the University in Chicago: Diet, Energy, and Global Warming from 2006

European Union

The European Commission responded in the following way to a question from the EVU on the topic climate change and nutrition:

Also raising the awareness of the climate impact of our behaviour as consumers is important. Organisations like the European Vegetarian Union can play an important role. Rather than any theoretical command and control policy by governments awareness of consumers plays a significant role in changing consumption patters of agricultural products. In this respect I would like to encourage you to continue your work.

Unfortunately the EU Commission is very reserved with its findings on the consequences of meat consumption. However, the following tip can be found (after some searching) on their climate change web page:

Eat your veg! Producing meat is both CO2 and methane-intensive and requires large amounts of water. In fact, ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats are large producers of methane due to the way that their digestive systems process food.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

Unfortunately the WWF has forbidden us to publish a statement from them (received in writing) on the subject of meat consumption and climate change. The only mention of the connection between vegetarianism and the environment on the WWF International website is hidden on a page relating to Europe's Common Agricultural Policy. There is no mention of meat consumption in the very visible section of their website on climate change.


Greenpeace International has not answered our repeated e-mails asking for their opinion on the link between climate change and nutrition, and the topic is completely ignored on their website.

World Watch Institut

The WorldWatch Institute in Washington has been warning of the global consequences of meat production for years. Climate change has naturally also been a recurring issue. In their article from 2004, «MEAT – Now, It’s Not Personal! But like it or not, meat-eating is becoming a problem for everyone on the planet», they summarise the findings and quote, among others, the following expert opinion:

One ton of methane, the chief agricultural greenhouse gas, has the global warming potential of 23 tons of carbon dioxide. A dairy cow produces about 75 kilograms of methane a year, equivalent to over 1.5 [metric] tons of carbon dioxide. The cow, of course, is only doing what comes naturally. But people are inclined to forget, it seems, that farming is an industry. We cleared the land, sowed the pasture, bred the stock, and so on. It’s a human business, not a natural one. We’re pretty good at it, which is why atmospheric concentrations of methane increased by 150 percent over the past 250 years, while carbon dioxide concentrations increased by 30 percent.
Pete Hodgson, New Zealand Minister for Energy, Science, and Fisheries

Sadly the WorldWatch Institute’s many warnings have still not been heeded.

comparison of different eating habits

For more information and source to the diagramm: Click on it.

Switzerland (Ministry for the Environment)

The Swiss Vegetarian Society received the following answer from the Vice-President of the Ministry for the Environment Gérard Poffet to their enquiry on 16.01.2007:

[...] The fundamental ecological disadvantages of current meat production cannot be denied. In the area of agriculture it has been possible to reduce the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide in Switzerland in the last few years through a reduction in the number of cattle and a realignment of the agricultural policy.
However, measures aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have been given priority in the achievement of our climate-related goals, as around 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in Switzerland come from the burning of these energy sources. [...]

The problems are therefore known to the authorities. However, the heavy subsidisation of the Swiss livestock industry contradicts this knowledge.

The following fictional comparison can be found in the Ministry for the Environment’s pdf document “Klimaschutz im Alltag”:

Parents Laura und Felix are vegetarians, but gourmets. They cook imaginatively for themselves and their two children. A wide variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables are the order of the day. Ready meals from the freezer are scorned as much as the microwave.
One person with eating habits like these releases less than one ton of CO2 annually. In contrast, someone who eats a lot of meat, defrosts frozen food daily and pays no attention to the distance his food has travelled easily produces half a ton more.
Fattening livestock requires much more energy than crop production, since every calorie of meat needs several times more plant-based calories in the form of cattle feed.

Although vegetarian nutrition is hidden within other climate-relevant issues, at least it is not completely ignored.

Another publication from the Ministry for the Environment, Das Klima in Menschenhand. Neue Fakten und Perspektiven. 2002, also touches briefly upon meat consumption (page 17):

Increasing meat consumption and the resulting growth in cattle herds promote the production of greenhouse gases just as the growing demand for food from a steadily increasing world population does.

One has to search hard to find anything from the Swiss Government, as the brief mention made of meat consumption has been banished to pdf documents and is only touched on in passing. However, at least the topic is not totally neglected.

Germany (German Bundestag’s research committee)

The following statement on the topic „ammonia“ was published in “Climatic Changes threaten National Development” by the German Bundestag’s research committee on the subject “Protection of the Earth’s Environment” in 1992:

NH3-emissions are nationally (West Germany), continentally (Western Europe) and globally to be assigned 90% to agriculture and 80% to the keeping of livestock. 528,000 tons of NH3 are emitted annually in the Federal Republic of Germany. Ammonia originates in the cattle stable area, in pastures and through the storage and spreading of organic fertiliser. [...] Ammonia and nitrogen release could be decreased by reducing the number of livestock, making changes in feeding and reducing the use of liquid manure as fertiliser. [...] This would be desirable not only in ecological, but also in economical respects. [4]

This committee was way ahead of the times in 1992. Even so, the German Government did not turn its words into actions.

At least the Bavarian Minister for the Environment, Werner Schnappauf clearly mentioned the impact of nutrition, in particular meat consumption on the climate at the opening of the Organic Trade-Fair. Below is an excerpt from the press release of 15.2.2007:

Abstaining from meat once a week is a contribution towards preventing climate change, according to Schnappauf. Research has shown that the production of one kilo of beef uses 6.5 kilo CO2; in comparison, the same amount of fruit needs half a kilo, and vegetables only 150 grams. In short, 5 tips for shopping are: bring more plant-based foods into your diet, favour seasonal fruit and vegetables grown outdoors, give preference to locally-grown and sustainably-produced food, and consume more fresh and unprocessed produce, rather than frozen goods, according to the minister.

These words are promising. However, unfortunately virtually no information on this topic can be found outside of the press release. Quite the contrary: among the many brochures on climate change is one called “Energy Savings in Butchers’ Shops – Protect the Climate – Reduce Costs”. Energy saving is certainly necessary in all areas, but that a whole brochure is dedicated to butchers, while the issue of meat consumption is otherwise ignored, is one-sided. Meat consumption or vegetarianism only appears in one other place: in the personal CO2-Calculator. One can input here whether or not one is vegetarian. Although it is mentioned that the production of meat and dairy products is energy-intensive, the option of choosing a purely vegan diet is not given in the questionnaire.


On its home page, the British government looks at the impact of various products on the environment and explicitly mentions that meat and dairy products have a large negative influence on the environment and the climate:

The production of meat and dairy products has a much bigger effect on climate change and other environmental impacts than that of most grains, pulses and outdoor fruit and vegetables.

The British belong to the biggest consumers of meat in Europe, but at the same time have by far the most vegetarians in Europe. This topic is therefore of particular relevance in Britain.

Other quotes:

In a new position paper of the American Dietetic Association: Food and Nutrition Professionals Can Implement Practices to Conserve Natural Resources and Support Ecological Sustainability:

Overall, animal protein production required 25 kcal for each kilocalorie produced as food. Grain protein production requires only 2.2 kcal per food kilocalorie....RDs can encourage eating that is both healthful and conserving of soil, water and energy by emphasizing plant sources of protein and foods that have been produced with fewer agricultural inputs.
Journal of the American Dietetic Association, June 2007


New Scientific article in The Lancet: Series, Energy and Health: "Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health", published online September 13, 2007 DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61256-2

Greenhouse-gas emissions from the agriculture sector account for about 22% of global total emissions; this contribution is similar to that of industry and greater than that of transport.

Available technologies for reduction of emissions from livestock production, applied universally at realistic costs, would reduce non-carbon dioxide emissions by less than 20%. We therefore advocate a contraction and convergence strategy to reduce consumption of livestock products, mirroring the widely supported strategy proposed for greenhouse-gas emissions in general. Contraction of consumption in high-income countries per head would then define the lower, common, ceiling to which low-income and middle-income countries could also converge.

Assuming a 40% increase in global population by 2050 and no advance in livestock-related greenhouse-gas reduction practices, global meat consumption would need to fall to an average of 90 g per person per day just to stabilise emissions from this sector.


NewScientist.com news service: Meat is murder on the environment (18 July 2007):

A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home.


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: 10 Solutions for Climate Change (November 26, 2007):

Eat Smart, Go Vegetarian?
[...] meat, whether beef, chicken or pork, requires pounds of feed to produce a pound of protein. [...]
University of Chicago researchers estimate that each meat-eating American produces 1.5 tons more greenhouse gases through their food choice than do their vegetarian peers. It would also take far less land to grow the crops necessary to feed humans than livestock, allowing more room for planting trees.

As of: 4. March 2008


  1. Livestock a major threat to environment
  2. Mikrobiologe: "Lieber an der Methanschraube drehen", Der Standard, 22.2.2007 and Klimawandel bremsen: Verzicht auf Rind und Milch, ORF, 22,2,2007
  3. The complete letter can be read here in pdf format: Briefantwort des BAFU.
  4. 1.Joint declaration from the 27 members of the Enquete Commission, in which all governing parties and 14 scientists were represented.

Further information on Ecology and Nutrition::