What are the trade-offs between animal welfare and the environmental influence of meat?


Consuming meat with a decrease carbon footprint usually means killing extra animals and treating them extra poorly.

An rising variety of folks would describe their dietary habits as “flexitarian” or “reducitarian.” These are individuals who nonetheless eat meat and dairy however are attempting to scale back their consumption, usually for environmental or moral causes. Within the UK, there are extra flexitarians than vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians (who solely eat fish) mixed.

These ethically-conscious shoppers nonetheless have a option to make: what forms of meat ought to they eat to scale back their environmental influence and scale back animal welfare prices?

It’s tempting to imagine that what’s good for the planet can also be good for the animal, however sadly, this isn’t the case. These two targets are sometimes in battle. What’s higher for animal welfare is usually worse for the surroundings, and vice versa. That is true throughout various kinds of livestock (for instance, beef versus hen) and throughout alternative ways of elevating a selected animal (caged versus free-range hens).

This trade-off is well missed. How shoppers navigate this dilemma will rely upon their values and priorities, together with different issues equivalent to price, style, and their relationship with farmers and communities.

On this article, I’ll current among the analysis on the trade-offs between environmental safety and animal welfare in an effort to resolve what you need to do when confronted with this trade-off.

Swap a beef burger for a hen one, and also you’ll lower the carbon footprint of your dinner by round 80%.1 The issue, nevertheless, is that you just’ll have to kill 200 instances as many chickens as cows to get the identical quantity of meat. A median hen may produce round 1.7 kilograms of meat, whereas a cow produces round 360 kilograms.

That is true for different forms of livestock, too. Within the chart beneath, I’ve proven every kind of meat’s carbon footprint on the correct and the variety of animals killed to provide one tonne on the left. You’ll be able to see the trade-off. Larger animals — cows, pigs, and lambs — emit extra greenhouse gases however produce far more meat per animal. Hen and fish might need a low carbon footprint however are killed in a lot increased numbers.

The consequence is that many extra smaller animals — chickens and fish — are slaughtered. As my colleague, Max Roser reveals in one other article, each day 200 million chickens and a whole lot of thousands and thousands of fish are killed, in comparison with a number of million pigs and sheep, and about 900,000 cows day by day.

Butterfly chart showing the number of animals killed to produce one tonne of meat vs. the greenhouse gas emissions of producing that meat. They are inversely correlated.

To offer these figures some context, the common particular person within the European Union consumes round 80 kilograms of meat per yr. If all of this got here from hen meat, about 40 chickens must be killed per particular person.2 From beef, it could be lower than one-sixth of a cow. That’s one cow each 6 or 7 years.

Nevertheless it’s not simply the variety of lives that issues. The lifetime of a median hen is probably going a lot worse than a cow’s. Practically all of the world’s chickens are factory-farmed. I’ve written in regards to the painful circumstances that many chickens expertise all through their lives. Whereas it’s definitely the case that some cattle may also expertise poor requirements of care, they’re extra seemingly, on common, to have increased ranges of welfare.3

It’s tough to navigate this tradeoff. Swapping beef for hen and fish will scale back your environmental footprint however at the price of extra animals residing extra painful lives.

Some flexitarians will prioritize the surroundings and select hen. Others will favour animal welfare and go for beef. Some will attempt to stability each and go for pork.

The selection is then a easy one, proper? Absolutely, natural pork is best for the animal and the surroundings. Or the free-range chickens are joyful, wholesome, and have the bottom influence.

Sadly not. These trade-offs additionally exist inside any given kind of meat.


Pack chickens in tiny cages, and also you’ll want much less land. Cease them from shifting round, and so they’ll “waste” much less power. Give them development hormones, and so they’ll acquire weight a lot quicker. That is higher for the local weather as a result of it means they want much less feed to succeed in their market weight, saving fertilizer, land, water and different sources, and can usually result in much less manure, which is one other supply of greenhouse gasoline emissions. However, in fact, all of those decisions will make animal lives extra depressing.

In a earlier article, I examined how hen breeds have modified over the past 50 years. “Quick-growing strains” of hen — which acquire weight extra rapidly — have turn out to be more and more standard.4 As is proven within the diagram beneath, after 56 days, the standard broiler hen in 2005 was greater than 4 instances heavier than the common hen within the Fifties. This offers trendy chickens varied well being issues however is in the end higher for the local weather due to the feed effectivity causes I defined above.

Image of chickens at different life stages, in the 1950s, 1970s and 2005. Chickens in 2005 are much bigger than those in the 1970s and 1950s.

A 2019 evaluate by the European Fee — “Influence of animal breeding on GHG emissions and farm economics” — notes that the carbon footprint of hen manufacturing has been falling in latest many years, virtually totally attributable to enhancements within the charge at which chickens develop. It notes that “additional improved development charge has by far the very best potential to scale back the GHG emissions of broiler manufacturing.”

The trade-off for animal welfare is obvious. The report means that one of many obstacles to additional reductions in greenhouse gasoline emissions is animal welfare considerations amongst shoppers:

“Throughout latest years, there was a rising market demand for slow-growing broilers, which have perceived increased welfare, as a substitute for the fast-growing, energy-efficient broilers. […] Rising such slow-growing strains would end in a considerable enhance in GHG emissions and different environmental burdens attributable to elevated feed consumption of the birds over the longer manufacturing cycle.”


What’s true of chickens can also be true of eggs. Caged hens require fewer sources than free-range ones and, subsequently, have a decrease carbon footprint.

A examine evaluating caged, free-range, and natural hens within the UK discovered that the caged hens produced extra eggs and wanted much less feed. This diminished their carbon footprint by round 16% per kilogram of egg.5 Research within the Netherlands and the Czech Republic discovered the identical: battery or caged hens had the bottom carbon footprint.6


The identical rules apply to cows. Extra environment friendly agriculture tends to scale back environmental impacts, nevertheless it additionally comes at the price of worse animal welfare.

Grass-fed beef tends to have the next carbon footprint than grain-fed. A examine by Daniel Blaustein-Rejto and colleagues discovered that the emissions from grass-fed beef have been round 20% increased than from grain-fed cows.7 Completely grass-fed beef additionally makes use of extra land, so the “carbon alternative prices” — how a lot carbon could possibly be sequestered in case you weren’t utilizing that land for farming — are increased. When Daniel Blaustein-Rejto and colleagues included these “missed” prices, the carbon footprint of grass-fed beef was 42% increased than grain-fed.

Most grain-fed cows spend not less than a part of their lives outdoor, the place they’re ate up grass, hay, and different forage. What’s completely different is that they’re transitioned to a grain-fed food regimen in direction of the tip of their lives. In that sense, “grain-finished” is a extra correct time period. Grain-fed cows can expertise discomfort in a couple of methods. First, they’re usually transported from the sphere to a feedlot, which might have a bodily and psychological toll.8 The noise and vibrations of the journey will be nerve-racking, circumstances will be cramped, and they are often disadvantaged of feed and water. A poorly managed transition from grass to grains may cause digestive points and discomfort. There are methods to scale back a few of these unfavourable impacts, however the general welfare of grain-fed cows might be decrease than grass-fed.

Grain-fed cows have a tendency to achieve weight extra rapidly, which suggests they attain their “optimum” weight sooner and are larger on the finish of their lives. They convert extra feed into meat in comparison with grass-fed cows, which is why the carbon footprint of grain-fed beef tends to be decrease. A number of research have reported related outcomes.9


It’s an identical sample for pigs.

In a paper revealed in Nature Meals, Harriet Bartlett and colleagues studied the environmental impacts, welfare prices, and antibiotic use in 74 pig “breed-to-finishing programs” within the UK and 17 in Brazil.10 That is the stage of manufacturing the place pigs are fed to succeed in market weight.

General, they discovered fairly massive trade-offs in most of those programs. Farms with higher animal welfare tended to emit extra carbon and use extra land. You’ll be able to see this relationship within the chart beneath, which compares the emissions per kilogram of meat to the welfare price.

Right here, the next welfare quantity — on the horizontal axis — is worse for the animal. Values additional to the correct symbolize the next welfare price. Damaging figures, additional on the left, are thought of a welfare “profit” — the standard of life is excessive sufficient that residing longer is taken into account so as to add to its welfare. Welfare was scored based mostly on normal strategies that take into account size and high quality of life, and 30 completely different indicators of well being and well-being.11

General, programs with increased greenhouse gasoline emissions are typically on the left-hand aspect, which means they profit the pigs. Farms with decrease emissions are typically worse. That is additionally true for land use: poorly handled animals want much less land.

Click on to open interactive model

The examine additionally discovered that the standard shopper labels on meals merchandise didn’t assure good outcomes. The chart beneath reveals the greenhouse gasoline emissions and welfare prices of various pig farms, grouped by typical assurance labels on pork and bacon packs, equivalent to “Crimson Tractor” licensed or “Natural”.

There’s a massive overlap between all of those programs. Free-range programs, for instance, have higher animal welfare than programs with no label, however there are some farms the place the pigs undergo welfare prices, not advantages. Some “RSPCA” farms even have welfare prices. Shopping for one among these labeled merchandise may enhance the chances of getting a well-treated pig, nevertheless it doesn’t assure it.

The median natural farm had increased carbon emissions, too. However once more, there’s some overlap between the completely different programs. Which means whereas these trade-offs are typical, they don’t seem to be essentially inevitable.

A dot plot showing the animal welfare and carbon footprint of pigs produced under different farming systems in the UK.

What can shoppers do in the event that they need to navigate these tradeoffs?

In fact, lowering general meat consumption will shrink your environmental footprint and stop animal struggling on the identical time. I selected this path and maximized its advantages by finally going vegan. However I additionally perceive that the world just isn’t going to go vegan in a single day.

Customers will nonetheless must face some tradeoffs, and the choices they select will rely upon their very own rankings of values and priorities. Which may imply switching to hen to scale back your carbon footprint, sticking with beef since you suppose animal welfare is extra essential, or accepting 15% increased emissions for free-range eggs in comparison with caged ones.

On the producer aspect, some trade-offs in these impacts are unavoidable. You can’t get a high-yielding hen with out using fast-growing strains. However these trade-offs will not be at all times inevitable: a small subset of farms have achieved each decrease environmental impacts and good ranges of animal care. The issue is that these examples are understudied. The truth is, few research have even recognized them.

If we focus extra analysis on how some programs stability these priorities, we’d discover insights that may be replicated elsewhere. The uncomfortable dilemma wouldn’t disappear fully, nevertheless it may ease this stress.


Many because of Edouard Mathieu, Pablo Rosado, and Max Roser for his or her priceless suggestions and feedback on this text and to Harriet Bartlett for the supply of examine knowledge.

Cite this work

Our articles and knowledge visualizations depend on work from many alternative folks and organizations. When citing this text, please additionally cite the underlying knowledge sources. This text will be cited as:

Hannah Ritchie (2024) - “What are the trade-offs between animal welfare and the environmental influence of meat?” Printed on-line at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/what-are-the-trade-offs-between-animal-welfare-and-the-environmental-impact-of-meat' [Online Resource]

BibTeX quotation

    creator = {Hannah Ritchie},
    title = {What are the trade-offs between animal welfare and the environmental influence of meat?},
    journal = {Our World in Information},
    yr = {2024},
    observe = {https://ourworldindata.org/what-are-the-trade-offs-between-animal-welfare-and-the-environmental-impact-of-meat}
Our World in Data logo

Reuse this work freely

All visualizations, knowledge, and code produced by Our World in Information are fully open entry underneath the Inventive Commons BY license. You might have the permission to make use of, distribute, and reproduce these in any medium, supplied the supply and authors are credited.

The information produced by third events and made obtainable by Our World in Information is topic to the license phrases from the unique third-party authors. We’ll at all times point out the unique supply of the information in our documentation, so it’s best to at all times verify the license of any such third-party knowledge earlier than use and redistribution.

All of our charts will be embedded in any web site.