Bovine, vegetable or cultivated: what is the impact of a hamburger on the climate

The hamburger is a patty of minced meat, usually beef, with a flattened shape. When sandwiched between two slices of bread, it gives rise to a sandwich which, as the name suggests, has its origins in Hamburg and has become popular mainly thanks to US fast food restaurants.

On the occasion of World Hamburger Day, which falls on May 28, Studio Fieschi & partners conducted a study on greenhouse gas emissions associated with hamburgers, focusing exclusively on the meat and not on the sandwich. The study is based on life cycle analysis (LCA), a methodology widely accepted by the international scientific community.

Greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the climate

Greenhouse gas emissions (of which CO2 is the best known) are assessed using an environmental indicator known as the 100-year global warming potential (GWP100), expressed in kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e). This indicator measures the impact these emissions have on the climate. It is important to underline that emissions are not the only relevant aspect in assessing the impact of food production and consumption, but they are certainly among the most significant issues of our time.

The environmental impact of hamburgers

According to a study conducted by Trinity College Dublin, it emerged that a 200 gram hamburger, prepared with meat from farms in Ireland, it produces 7.9 kg of CO2 equivalent. This value corresponds to the direct emissions, an important aspect, generated by a petrol FIAT 500 traveling a distance of 67 km. For comparison, the distance between Milan and Piacenza by car is approximately that.

If we move to Brazil, the impact of a 200 gram hamburger increases to 11.6 kg of CO2 equivalent. The main reason for this difference is the production of animal feed, which takes place differently in Brazil. In this country, in fact, agriculture makes more extensive use of fertilizers.

In addition, according to other studies, the difference in climate impacts is influenced by other factors, including:

  • The presence of concentrated and high protein feed in the diet of animals is another factor contributing to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The use of feed concentrates and the addition of protein in the diet allow for greater growth of the animals, but require additional processes in their production, which generate additional greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, using more processed feeds can increase enteric fermentation in animals, leading to higher methane emissions during manure management.
  • The average life span of livestock before being slaughtered is another factor that affects the emissions generated for their maintenance. The longer animals live, the higher the emissions associated with their feeding, care and management. This data highlights how in some cases the climate impact and animal welfare indicators can go in different directions.

Reducing the climate impact of hamburgers

It is important to consider that the climate impact associated with a hamburger can significantly decrease when you opt for a different meat, such as that of chicken. However, it is also essential to consider the welfare of the animals on the farms from which the chicken meat is sourced. Interestingly, even in the case of poultry, a significant part of greenhouse gas emissions is related to the production of the feed used. Therefore, in the overall assessment of the environmental impact of the hamburger, both the choice of meat and the origin and production process of the feed play a crucial role.

The climate footprint can be further reduced if you opt for plant-based burgers. A study conducted by Trinity College Dublin estimated that a vegetable burger has an impact of 2.6 kgCO2e, with a 67% reduction compared to beef. It is important to note that despite the plant choice, a certain level of greenhouse gas emissions are present, as in all human activities, and these emissions are mainly attributable to the cultivation and processing of plant ingredients.

A sustainable alternative to cattle farming

The meat grown in the laboratory is produced starting from animal stem cells: with the addition of specific ingredients, for example, the muscles and fat of the bovine are created. These cells are then combined with plant-based materials, such as soy protein and coconut oil.

According to a study by the University of Ohio, a hamburger grown in a laboratory in the United States produces 0.768 kg CO2eq, that is – according to the study data – about 87% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to the beef burger identified for comparison (and requires, again according to the study, 39% less energy).

A complex assessment of environmental impacts

The results of the studies collected represent the climatic footprint of the products, from the production of raw materials to their transformation into a product ready for consumption. The types of hamburgers analyzed are comparable in terms of nutrition, cooking times and shelf life.

However, if you ask yourself which hamburger is the best from an environmental point of view, the answer is not simple. Greenhouse gas emissions alone do not exhaust the complexity of the impacts of food on the planet (and on people).. In fact, the evaluation includes aspects ranging from soil consumption to animal welfare, passing through the stress on water resources. All these elements are very relevant for agricultural, livestock and food industry systems.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button