Meat and the environment: the Environmental Hourglass
The growing interest in food sustainability also translates into an increased focus on the environmental impacts generated by food chains along all the stages from the cultivation of raw materials, to the distribution of products to consumers.
To report and communicate the impacts, synthetic indicators such as carbon and water footprint are used, which on the one hand have the advantage of being easy to communicate and understand, but on the other can often lead to misleading results, because the values are communicated without an analysis of the actual local repercussions.
The consumption of a certain amount of water, for example, does not provide information about the real impact if the value is not put in relation to the availability of water in the area in which the production is actually carried out.
In general, meats and cured meats are among the foods characterised by major environmental impacts if the analysis is performed considering one kg of product. “Classifying” foods based on their impact per kg is not a significant exercise, both because the nutritional intake of foods is different, and because proper nutrition should include a balanced consumption of all foods available. Comparing the impact to the frequency of consumption and the portions suggested by the public recommendations, the average weekly impact of the meat is aligned with other foods, for which the unit impacts are less, but the amounts generally consumed are higher.
This concept is well represented by the Environmental Hourglass, obtained by multiplying the environmental impact of food for the weekly amount recommended. According to this representation, eating the correct amount of meat does not significantly increase the environmental impact of an individual.
Beyond the evaluations of the general context, operators of meat and cured meats production sector are constantly looking for actions of improvement towards the efficiency of production processes, and the reduction of environmental impacts. The availability of skills and modern technologies, allows the livestock operators to have a wide choice for the possible actions suitable for the environmental improvement.
Some of the most relevant are the precision farming practices as well as the use of manure for the production of biogas. Especially the second alternative allows a double advantage: beside the reduction of the environmental impacts due to the manure management, a large amount of energy is produced without using fossil resources.
In this regard the results of a FAO research are interesting, according to which the European production systems are those characterised by lower environmental impact per kg of protein.
The Sustainable Meat Project