The carbon footprint of food products
To calculate the greenhouse gas emissions linked to a food, we take into account all the steps from the farm with its energy consumption to distribution, transport, processing, etc.
Are taken into account different greenhouse gases, translated into CO2 equivalent: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Meat, especially red meat from ruminants, has a relatively high carbon footprint compared to other foods. This is explained because the meat production cycle is often longer than the plant production cycle (a few years of breeding for a cattle against a few months for a wheat). However, comparing these two types of food is questionable because animal products (meat, milk, eggs, fish) provide complementary nutrients to plants. As a reminder, the National Health and Nutrition Program (PNNS) recommends consuming “a food from the meat, egg, fish family once or twice a day”. In addition, the current regulations relating to the nutritional quality of meals in collective catering recalls the nutritional value of meat, especially for its iron intake
Within the meat family, the carbon footprint of ruminant meat (cattle and sheep) is heavier than white meat that comes from monogastric animals such as chicken or pig. This difference is mainly due to methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times warmer than CO2, emitted during the bacterial fermentation of grass and fodder in the rumen of cattle and sheep. The famous “cows’ burp”. However, this ability to digest grass from non-cultivable areas provides important environmental, economic and social services which must be taken into account in the assessment. It also stores carbon in permanent grassland soils and reduces the carbon footprint of meat.
The different criteria for a global environmental assessment
In environmental assessment, the methods for calculating greenhouse gas emissions are the most developed. However, environmental assessment experts and government officials agree that the sole criterion of “carbon” or greenhouse gas emissions is not enough.
Indeed, if we focus on this single criterion, we risk unbalancing other environmental impacts. Thus, imported meat from industrial farms may have a lower carbon footprint than French meat because it will have been produced more intensively (especially with a more cereal diet), generating less emission per kg of meat. . However, French sheep and cattle farming systems, based on grass (60% of the ration on average) (See: Feeding cattle and Feeding sheep), have many environmental advantages that must also be taken into account to assess the environmental impact of a product. Indeed, these 13 million hectares of grassland used by herbivores are carbon sinks (their soil captures as much carbon as forest soil), as well as large areas of biodiversity. They prevent the risk of erosion, fire and flooding and play a key role in the landscape. All of these criteria must be taken into account so as not to risk unbalancing the farming systems that produce milk and meat in France and contribute to the economy and social life of many rural areas.