Eating Lower-Carbon Meats is Actually Worse for Animal Welfare. The Solution? Eat Less Meat

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While swapping beef for chicken may lower your impact on the climate, it also means killing more poorly treated animals. The key to balancing the tradeoff is to just eat less meat.

During COP28, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published an agrifood roadmap to help keep emissions in line with the 1.5°C goal. Thanks to intense lobbying – the number of meat and dairy lobbyists at the climate conference tripled to reach 120 – this strategy failed to include a reduction in meat-eating to tackle the climate crisis and global hunger.

Instead, the FAO suggested you swap from beef to chicken, which relatively emits much fewer greenhouse gas emissions. That is a very simplistic take, and ignores a lot of the side effects of doing so. For one, a group of academics published a comment on the roadmap, suggesting that this move – alongside another suggestion for intensifying animal agriculture in low-income countries – could “maintain or even substantially increase risks of anti-microbial resistance and/or zoonotic disease”.

The trade-off between climate change and animal welfare is hard to balance if you’re a meat-eater. Ideally, what’s good for the planet should also always be good for the animals, but as Our World in Data scientist and researcher Hannah Ritchie writes, this is unfortunately not the case. “These two goals are often in conflict,” she says.

And this is true whether we’re talking about different types of animals, or different ways of raising them (for example, caged versus cage-free).

Chicken burgers have a lower climate impact, but are worse for animals

climate change animal rights
Courtesy: Our World in Data

If you take the FAO’s advice and swap your beef burger for chicken, you’ve cut your carbon footprint by about 80%. But you’ve also just killed 200 times more animals for your dinner. An average chicken could produce 1.7kg of meat. A cow? 360kg.

The average person in the EU consumes about 80kg of meat annually. If this was entirely chicken, you’d need to kill 40 chickens per person each year. For beef, this would be less than a sixth of a cow.

Generally, bigger animals like cows, pigs and lambs will emit more atmosphere-harming gases, but yield more meat per animal. Smaller creatures like chickens and fish may have a lower carbon footprint, but are slaughtered in higher numbers.

Global calculations by Our World in Data founder Max Roser reveal that, every day, 202 million chickens are slaughtered for meat (averaging about 140,000 per minute). While figures for fish are highly uncertain, they are also in the hundreds of millions. In contrast, the number of cows killed each day is 900,000, which rises to 3.8 million for pigs – these are fractions of the number of chickens being slaughtered daily.

Apart from the sheer number, it’s also the conditions that the average chicken is subjected to that bring cause for concern. Ritchie’s previous analysis shows that, in the US alone, 99.97% of chickens (that’s 8.9 billion) are factory-farmed, as are all fish raised on farms. “While it is certainly the case that some cattle will also experience poor standards of care, they’re more likely, on average, to have higher levels of welfare,” she writes.

chicken sizes over the years
Courtesy: Our World in Data

Chickens can be packed in tiny cages with limited movements and given growth hormones, all of which would limit land and energy use and increase yield as they grow faster. This means they require less feed before they’re ready to be slaughtered and sold, which leads to lower resource use and overall climate footprint. However, all this just makes the lives of the chickens more torturous.

These fast-growing chickens have become more popular – the weight of the most common broiler chicken after 56 days was four times higher in 2005 than in 1957. So while it may make chicken meat better for the environment than beef, it also imparts them with a multitude of health problems.

The climate-welfare tradeoff exists across species

Some flexitarians will prioritise the climate and opt for chicken, some would stress more on welfare and choose beef. Others who want to do both might end up going for pork.

But it’s not that simple. Research has shown that pig farms with better animal welfare standards produce more carbon and use more land. Meanwhile, the study also found that packaging labels like ‘Red Tractor certified’ or ‘organic’ on pork and bacon don’t always guarantee good outcomes. Free-range systems may have better animal welfare than those with no label, but, at some farms, the pigs suffer welfare costs, not benefits.

Even some RSPCA farms have welfare costs – the animal rights charity has been under fire recently for misleading consumers with its food labelling scheme. “Buying one of these labelled products might improve the odds of getting a well-treated pig, but it doesn’t guarantee it,” writes Ritchie.

meat climate change animal welfare
Courtesy: Our World in Data

Similarly, for eggs, caged hens need fewer resources than free-range chickens and thus have a smaller carbon footprint. In the UK, caged chickens actually have a 16% lower climate impact – but then again, they are raised in miserable environments.

As for cows, grass-fed beef can have 20% higher emissions than grain-fed ones, which spend at least part of their lives outdoors. Grain-fed cows also gain weight more quickly, reaching the ‘optimal’ weight sooner. They’re bigger at the end of their lives, which translates into more meat per animal than grass-fed cows, and a lower carbon footprint.

However, they are often transported from the field to a feedlot, which has an associated physical and mental toll, thanks to the noise and vibrations of the journey, the cramped conditions, and the lack of water and food. “A poorly managed transition from grass to grains can cause digestive issues and discomfort. There are ways to reduce some of these negative impacts, but the overall welfare of grain-fed cows is probably lower than grass-fed,” Ritchie states.

How to balance climate change with animal welfare

So what can you do to make sure that your climate impact is lower than the average meat-eater, but also serves animal welfare benefits? Ritchie says it just depends on your own priorities.

You may end up switching to chicken to reduce your footprint, continuing with beef because you feel animal welfare is more important (although 70% of cows in the US are also factory-farmed), or being okay with 15% higher emissions for free-range eggs. Some of these tradeoffs are unavoidable – producers can’t have high-yielding chickens without fast-growing strains, for example.

Ritchie mentions that a small subset of farms may have achieved both lower climate impacts and good levels of animal care, but these are understudied and mostly unidentified examples.

It may sound preachy, but to maximise the twin benefits of climate and animal friendliness, following a plant-based diet would really be the way to go. However, we’ve got to keep things pragmatic: not everyone will or can go vegan, so instead of eliminating meat, focus on reducing it.

un livestock
Courtesy: UNEP

Even the UN says so, with the UNEP publishing a report during COP28 that endorsed alternative proteins and a cutback in animal intake. “Making room for more and more livestock and fodder crops is driving the loss of tropical forests, while excess animal manure and chemical fertilisers are polluting our groundwater, rivers and seas,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen said. “As global demand for meat and dairy products continues to rise, their production and consumption pose significant challenges for public health and animal welfare.”

The report suggested that novel foods like plant-based, cultivated and fermentation-derived proteins “show potential for reduced environmental impacts” veruss many conventional animal foods. “They also show promise for reduced risk of zoonoses and antimicrobial resistance, and can significantly reduce animal welfare concerns associated with conventional animal agriculture,” the UNEP said.

Separate research has shown that replacing just half of your meat and dairy intake with plant-based analogues can cut emissions by 31%, reduce land use by 12% (and effectively halt deforestation), and lower water consumption by 10%. So in this case, one of the most ideal ways to have your steak and eat it too is just to consume less of it.


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

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