New report outlines a six-step approach that food providers can use to design sourcing strategies that achieve climate, social, ethical,and economic goals

WASHINGTON – World Resources Institute (WRI) today released a report finding important trade-offs when shifting from conventional animal agriculture systems to alternative systems such as organic and grass-fed. While these systems can be better for goals like improving animal welfare or reducing antibiotic usage, the report finds alternative systems led to greater climate, land, and/or water impacts in 75% of the examined cases.

Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For food companies based in Europe or North America, emissions from meat and dairy production can easily account for the majority of their food-related “scope 3” GHG emissions.

While much focus has been on ways to reduce the climate effects of beef and dairy, animal agriculture also impacts water use and pollution, health, animal welfare and more. This has policymakers and businesses asking how different protein options stack up against these factors.While the authors stress that the best strategy for overcoming competing tradeoffs is by shifting to more plant-based foods, the report also provides a six-step approach that food providers can use to design meat sourcing strategies to achieve climate, social, ethical, and economic goals. 

“Shifting to diets that are higher in plants, while reducing the amount of meat and dairy we eat, is a triple-win for climate, nature, and animal welfare in high-income countries,” said Richard Waite, Acting Director of Agriculture Initiatives at WRI. “That said, because meat and dairy are a part of many people’s diets, an important question is, what ways of producing meat have the lowest impact? This research shows that there is no single best meat production system or product label–there are often trade-offs. Food companies need to understand these dynamics to successfully work with their meat suppliers to achieve their climate and other commitments,” said Waite

Using nearly 300 data points from life cycle assessments from production systems in Europe and North America conducted from 2000 to 2022, the authors aimed to understand what counts as “better meat”— an often-nebulous term used for meat with better performance against different environmental, social, ethical, or economic attributes or that’s produced using alternative agricultural production systems such as organic, grass-fed,or free-range.

“I often hear people talk about a sustainable menu as being either entirely plant-based or including meat that’s produced with alternative methods many assume to be environmentally friendly,” said Clara Cho, Data Analyst at WRI and one of the report’s authors. “Unfortunately, sourcing meat that is better for the environment and delivers a range of other co-benefits is not that straightforward.”

“Companies that shift to sourcing ‘better meat’ from systems with higher environmental impacts will need to shift from sourcing ‘less meat’ to sourcing ‘even less meat’ if they want to also meet their sustainability goals,” said Cho

Alternative production systems typically require more land to produce the same amount of protein as conventional methods do. Land use per gram of protein was higher in alternative systems in more than 90% of cases assessed. Higher land use ultimately means more emissions released into the atmosphere as agriculture globally continues to expand into forested areas and other natural ecosystems that store carbon. 

The report shows that a number of strategies do exist to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from meat within any type of production system. For example, companies can work with their meat suppliers to promote improvements in feeds, animal breeds, veterinary care, manure management, and other aspects of animal agriculture that contribute to emissions. 

“There are many ways for meat producers to cut emissions. Food companies should encourage those and work with their suppliers to track improvements over time,”said Waite. “Also, while alternative production systems can lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions,these systems can offer other benefits that make them worth pursuing.”

The report comes as farmers across Europe push back against climate and trade policies they say hurt their livelihoods and are overbearing. Two recent EU directives–the proposed European Commission target to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2040 compared to 1990 levels, and the EU Nature Restoration Law, aiming to restore at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030 — have led to intense political debates about how to broadly address the agriculture sector’s emissions and environmental footprint.

“What we choose to eat and how we produce that food has very real climate and environmental consequences,”said Stientje van Veldhoven, WRI’s Vice-President and Regional Director for Europe. “We need to look at all the evidence to find a win-win solution for Europe. That must include reducing our emissions from meat and dairy consumption, notably beef, while listening to farmers’ legitimate concerns regarding fair prices, income and red tape.”

In the United States, the new report contributes to the ever-growing discussion around sustainable farming practices,as the U.S. Department of Agriculture decides how to allocate $19.5billionin Inflation Reduction Act funds for climate-smart agriculture. 

Further detail on the report and its recommended6-part sourcing strategy can be found at: