(CN) – Replacing one serving of beef with poultry each day can slash dietary greenhouse gas emissions by half, suggesting we don’t need to give up meat to reduce our carbon footprint, according to new research released Monday.
Using survey data from 16,000 United States participants, lead author and Tulane University professor Diego Rose found substituting one “high-carbon” beef product recently eaten by a participant with an equivalent poultry product reduced the participant’s carbon footprint by an average 50%.
Rose says eating this way every day for a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to emissions released driving an average car about 3,700 miles.
“That’s an easy way to make a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in an email.
Rose is presenting the findings Monday at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.
Rose’s team started by looking at data from the 2005-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on the foods participants had eaten in the past 24 hours. The analysis revealed that the 10 foods with the largest carbon footprints were all cuts of beef, and about 20% of study participants had reported eating those foods.
The foods with the highest impact in each of the randomly chosen diets were most often a type of beef at 52%, followed by a mixed-beef dish at 33%, the study found.
Researchers calculated a carbon footprint for the diet of each person who had eaten beef. Then they replaced one beef item with an equivalent poultry item – ground turkey was substituted for ground beef, for example – and recalculated each footprint. Substitutions were made only once a day for each person.
The substitutions also resulted in “slight improvements” in Healthy Eating Index values, according to the study.
The Healthy Eating Index measures diet quality and can be used to assess compliance with U.S. Dietary Guidelines, according to the National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, meat from cattle and other ruminants like sheep and goats has a larger carbon footprint than poultry, vegetables and grains. Beef, Rose says, has a high carbon footprint because of the methane gas that cattle release during digestion.
“This research shows that we can make a substantial reduction in our dietary carbon footprint with a single substitution in our daily diet,” Rose said.
“Climate change is so serious of a problem that I believe all sectors of the economy need to contribute to a reduction in impacts,” he added.
Rose’s team plans to research additional environmental impacts, including water use.