A diet in which the protein comes from poultry, rather than beef, is a smart and inexpensive to reduce our impact on the climate, research from Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology suggests.

“Cattle ranching is already responsible for 15 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that humans cause. The diet we are accustomed to in wealthy countries is not consistent with our climate goals,” says Chalmers researcher David Bryngelsson, who recently presented his doctoral thesis on land use, food related greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change.

His work found that, over the past 20 years, Europeans have increased their per capita consumption of beef by over 50 percent, and while they may not have caught up with Americans, the trend worldwide is for an increasing number of people eating an increasing amount of beef, running counter to the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 2 degrees C.

“Since around 70 percent of all agricultural land is currently used to raise cattle, converting to more energy-efficient poultry would free up land for cultivation of, for example, bionenergy,” he adds.

Production chain technical improvements can, to an extent, also reduce the food industry’s climate impact, but cattle remain the biggest problem. It is difficult to change the fact that they need a lot of feed and release methane as they ruminate. Furthermore, forests are being devastated to make room for ever more cattle, which also impacts the climate.

Poultry offers more benefits

The studies show that a vegan diet is the most climate friendly, as plant based food is more efficiently produced than livestock, but the greatest gains are to be had by discontinuing cattle products. The benefits to the climate when moving away from a poultry diet to a vegan diet are relatively minor compared to moving from cattle to poultry.

The difference between chicken and beef as regards area requirements and greenhouse gas emissions is so great there is no doubt that the chicken leaves a smaller carbon footprint, regardless of production method.

This is because a hen can produce around 150 chicks annually, compared to a cow that can give birth to not quite one calf per year. Chicks grow extremely quickly and absorb a significantly greater proportion of their feed than calves. Furthermore, cows belch large amounts of methane while chewing on the cud.

The intensity of emissions is basically the same for eggs and chicken meat, making them also climate smart compared to beef and diary products.

The study also found that becoming vegetarian would not slow climate change, because to the large volume of dairy products in vegetarian diets. Substituting beef for chicken would be more beneficial and still allow consumers to eat meat.

“You could say that chicken is like an electrical car – it is a better alternative, yet still very similar to what we are accustomed to,” Bryngelsson said.