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Sustainable Meat: is a Lower Environmental Impact Possible?

Sustainable Meat: is a Lower Environmental Impact Possible?

Net consumption will increase by 20% in 10 years, the UN predicts: that's why more "sustainable" meats, less costly in environmental terms, are spreading.

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According to the FAO, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 14.5% of the global emissions responsible for climate change are attributable to livestock. The United Nations Environmental Programme has estimated that over the course of the next 10 years, meat consumption – especially that of beef and chicken – could increase worldwide by around 20% (in the past 50 years it has risen respectively by 180% and 700%).

Beef vs Pork and Chicken

The resulting environmental impact would be an issue and for this reason, some are in favour of applying a meat tax. The biggest offender is beef: it requires 28 times more land than is required for breeding pigs and chickens and 11 times more water, with resulting greenhouse emissions that are five times higher.

Of course, in some types of diet with a lower meat content, of which Mediterranean cuisine is a good example, the environmental impact of its consumption is aligned with that of other foods: this is demonstrated by the 'environmental hourglass' showing the weekly emission of CO2 for every type of food, which was recently presented to the European Parliament by Italian producers. In itself, the consumption of meat – especially that of herbivorous livestock, cattle and sheep primarily – is intrinsically scarcely sustainable for the planet at this moment in time. But if you are wondering whether there are any types of meat that are less costly in purely environmental terms, the answer is yes.

Not just plumage: the spreading of Ostrich meat

First of all: ostrich meat. Its taste, texture and colour are very similar to those of beef. On the plus side, it is far less fatty (consisting of 97% lean meat), lower in cholesterol and richer in iron. On top of which, ostriches do not emit methane, a greenhouse gas. For historical and cultural reasons, the consumption of this bird of South African origin is not at all widespread, mainly because, in the past, it was bred for its plumage rather than its meat. However, owing to ever increasing environmental awareness, this could all change soon. Some people are already betting on it in the US.

Squirrel meat, from North America to Europe

On the subject of North America, there is actually a niche market for game enthusiasts who are enormously keen on squirrel meat, which until the early 1900s occupied a place of honour in American cookery books. There can be no doubt that this very tasty meat with an aftertaste of walnuts has been a great favourite among hunters in times immemorial.

In Europe it is not at all common, but in the last few years, particularly in the UK, the situation has been reversed: squirrel meat is considered to be an ethical choice, particularly because it contributes to saving the native red squirrel whose numbers have been drastically reduced on the continent by its highly aggressive and prolific American cousin, the grey squirrel.

Not forgetting the fact that this is game and therefore it does not come with all the problems involved in breeding activities. But let there be no doubt about it: a widespread diet based on game would certainly not be sustainable in today's world. This is why, along with a reduction in meat consumption, efforts are being made to seek more sustainable breeding solutions.

Llama meat, the new luxury food in Latin America

In Latin America, for instance, and particularly in Bolivia and Peru, llama meat has become popular once more. Its taste can be described as a cross between lamb and beef, only sweeter and healthier than the latter; once eaten by the poor it has now become a luxury food. As a breed, it is thought to be far better suited to highland pastures than sheep or goats, partly because of the shape of its hoof, which does not provoke land erosion, and partly because of its eating habits, since it does not uproot the plants it feeds off.

However, if we are thinking in terms of environmental footprint and we wish to eat more sustainable animal proteins, there are other alternatives: insects, farmed fish and, above all, mussels and other bivalves (whose environmental footprint is 20 times lower than that of chicken). Or perhaps a succulent red meat created in a laboratory?

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