Kelly Sanders and Michael Webber analysed the amount of energy used and greenhouse gases emitted in the entire lifecycle of a kilogramme of beef and, for comparison, a kilogramme of wheat produced in the US. Using an emissions price range of $10 and $85 per tonne of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions, the pair estimated that the cost of lifecycle CO2e emissions for wheat produced in the US are between $0.01 and $0.09 per kilogram whereas for beef, these costs are much higher at $0.31 and $2.60 per kg.

Unlike previous studies that focused only on certain aspects of production, Sanders and Webber looked at the entire lifecycle of the two products, from cultivation through processing and transportation to storage and end-use preparation. While this is a relatively simple idea, Sanders points out that gathering the data was a huge challenge because many aspects are not reported.

“It is not surprising that a kilogram of beef has more emissions associated with it than wheat because wheat is fed to cattle,” said Sanders. “But while many believe that emissions from transportation are most significant, our research has shown that the vast majority of these emissions come from the animals themselves rather than transportation.”

The study, which is published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), has shown that, per kilogram, beef has 28 times the CO2e emissions of wheat. Around 87% of this is produced on the farm, either by the animal itself or by its manure. Sanders and Webber also point out that a kilogram of beef uses 30 times more energy per mass produced than a kilo of wheat bread, but costs only 1.5 times more.

“These calculations show there is a disconnect between consumer cost and environmental cost,” said Sanders. “We have a lot of food subsidies in the US, which in turn subsidize the meat industry. Meat is cheap and if we want to reduce emissions from this industry, we need to rethink the way we hand out subsidies.”

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