Meat and shrimp–how diet contributes to global warming

I read two different studies this week that are connected but were not related in the media.

The first is record warmth across the country. Denver recorded 80 degrees in mid-November. And 29 states had the warmest December ever recorded. Instead of a white Christmas, it was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve in Vermont!

Such freakish weather might be written off as the normal variation, except that an analysis by NOAA found the last five years were the warmest ever recorded in the past 122 years.

With the Arctic sea ice melting and glaciers disappearing, along with record high temperatures across the planet, it is getting increasingly difficult to deny that the planet is heating up.

The second paper I read explains part of the reason. Research by Boone Kauffman and colleagues, at Oregon State University and the Center for International Forestry Research, provides part of the answer.

Kauffman and his associates set out to calculate how much CO2 was released when native tropical vegetation was removed to facilitate shrimp and beef production.

But they went further than other researchers to put the answer into something that every person could easily understand.

What they found is that eating one meal of steak and shrimp cocktail releases as much CO2 into the atmosphere as driving a fuel-efficient car from New York to Los Angeles!

The seven-year study looked at the ecological, as well as climatic cost, of conversion of mangroves into shrimp farms and cattle pastures. Conversion of native vegetation to agricultural uses resulted in a land-use carbon footprint of 1,440 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere to produce every pound of beef, and 1,603 pounds of released carbon dioxide for every pound of shrimp..

Kauffman and his colleagues developed a measure of land-use carbon footprint. First, they measured the amount of carbon in intact mangroves. Then they calculated the GHG emissions that result when these mangrove forests are converted to shrimp farms or cattle pasture. Though only occupying 0.6% of the Earth’s tropical forest, the continued removal of these trees accounts for 12% of all carbon emissions resulting from tropical vegetation conversion.

Finally, they measured the amount of shrimp or beef produced from this conversion over the life of the operation to arrive at the land-use carbon footprint.

Read more at:

Though some might suggest the findings do not apply to other ecosystems, the fact is that any number of studies have shown that livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock accounted for 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, more GHG emissions than all the world’s transportation combined.

A World Watch Study that included more associated impacts from animal agriculture estimated that as much as 51% of the GHG emissions resulted from livestock production, primarily beef, and dairy cows, though chickens and pigs were also included in their analysis.

What these studies suggest is consuming beef and dairy products is one of the worse things any individual can do in terms of its global warming effects. And unlike other necessary, but more difficult to implement reductions of our society CO2 emissions through structural changes like better insulation of buildings, fewer cars, and ultimately population reduction, the one thing that most of us can easily do for the planet is reduce our consumption of meat and dairy.

Of course, there are other good reasons to reduce meat and dairy as well. When forests and native grasslands are converted to pasture and/or crops like soybean or corn to feed domestic livestock the loss of wildlife habitat is huge, and it is now a major factor driving many species extinct.

And there are good health reasons to eat less red meat and dairy which have been implicated in many diseases from cancer to heart disease.

All in all, the connection between diet and a warming planet are clear. If one is concerned about the long-term impacts of global warming, the most immediate and easiest change in behavior that all of us can implement immediately is change our diet.








  1. Kathleen Avatar

    Many people and even many climate change groups prefer to focus on fossil fuels because it doesn’t require “giving up” all the things they’ve been brainwashed to accept as normal and desirable (even when they literally harm human health). A person who follows a vegan diet produces 50% less CO2 and uses 1/11th oil and 1/13th water and 1/18th land compared to a meat eater. That comes from one of the infographics below.

    Check out these facts (all sources cited)

    and these infographics

    1. Professor Sweat Avatar
      Professor Sweat

      There’s a difference between eating meat/dairy and eating industrially produced meat/dairy. Vegan diets produce no positive environmental effects when the user is consuming industrially produced grains and proteins. Would 100 monocropped acres of whatever plant product you use for protein be a better use of land than an integrated system of different productive perennial herbs/trees/shrubs/veggies and various rotationally grazed livestock species along with some low-tech water catchment techniques? Which would be more biodiverse and resource efficient?
      The argument of feeding humanity does not exist in a world of black and white.

      1. Immer Treue Avatar
        Immer Treue

        I think another variable in the vegan/vegetarian, and for that matter, omnivore diet, is soil depletion. So much literature out there in regard to we require more (K,Mg,Ca) in our diets, and less (Na and sugar), yet if these important elements are no longer in the soil, they don’t exist in the “good” food ingested.

  2. Craig Avatar

    We raise pasture fed bison and I would like to provide figures of how much carbon dioxide is produced from fossil fuels used to grow a bison to a 400 pound carcass. 240 pounds co2 to grow a ton of irrigated hay. 10 pounds co2 to harvest a ton of hay. 28 pounds co2 to haul a ton of hay. 10 pounds of co2 to feed a ton of hay. It takes about 4.3 tons of hay to support a cow and a calf through one winter and take that yearling through a second winter. Do the math and you will find 3.1 pounds of co2 produced from fossil fuels to produce a pound of bison meat. We expend another 120 pounds of co2 to take a field slaughtered carcass to the butcher.

  3. rork Avatar

    I think emphasizing our personal choices over our political will to actually take action that matters is a mistake. Rather than support carbon taxes (that would work like magic) the coal company will tell you that more efficient appliances are the solution – it is up to your saintly behavior alone dear reader. Please remain distracted about your personal behavioral choices, and feel that others not pitching in are the problem, rather than take legislative steps. Even taxing those shrimp might just mean someone in another country will eat them instead, perhaps at a slightly lower price – that part of the calculations is missing entirely. Instead there seems to be the thinking that “if everyone did like I do” – but that won’t happen. Real incentives work better. The US has CAFE standards on vehicle fuel consumption. The Germans have never had any and use one quarter the gasoline we do per capita. Could it possibly be because they tax gas more, or are the Germans just more saintly?

    1. Louise Kane Avatar
      Louise Kane


  4. Nancy Avatar

    “Please remain distracted about your personal behavioral choices, and feel that others not pitching in are the problem, rather than take legislative steps”

  5. Louise Kane Avatar
    Louise Kane

    to speak to your assertion of accelerated warming.
    ocean acidification too is escalating
    researchers argue much of the barrier reef is dead or dying. Reefs are thought to be up tp 20 million years old and we have succeeded in killing them in a couple hundred. Now with the orange dictator in power (words chosen purposefully), we can expect more global ecological trauma.

    The wonder of it all is that virtually no one addresses human growth. I mean how can this not be front and center every day. Hardly a peep except from those like Lester Brown. CBD was focusing on overpopulation but I don’t see much from them on it lately either.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner