If you are devoted follower of our blog, you might have noticed that some of our authors (including myself) helped to organize a museum exhibition about climate change in the last year. Apart from organizing it, most of us also led visitors through the exhibition and discussed with them the causes of climate change, possible impacts on future generations and what each of us can contribute to prevent the most adverse effects of a changing climate.
One thing that frequently puzzled visitors were the results of the so-called “choice game”. With the help of the choice game we wanted to show visitors which areas of our life generate the most carbon emissions and that making smart choices can go quite a way in reducing our personal contribution to a warming planet. We also asked them to pick what they believe is the most environmental-friendly food. Many visitors immediately pointed their fingers at veggies and dairy products. At the same time, they suspected meat and fish to have the worst footprint of all possible choices. When we eventually lifted the curtain, people were often surprised of what they saw: in terms of carbon emissions, the consumption of cheese turned out to be similarly damaging to the environment as eating meat. But why is that?
Let’s take a look at the hard facts first. According to a life-cycle analysis carried out by the US-American non-profit organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), lamb and beef production and consumption by far cause the most GHG emissions per consumed kilogram. Surprisingly, cheese ranks third and scores worse than pork, salmon, turkey and chicken. A study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization arrives at very similar results.
There are several reasons for the relatively large carbon footprint of cheese. First, one kilogram of cheese requires up to 10 kilograms of milk due to the maturing process that cheese usually undergoes. The milk, in turn, comes from a dairy cow. Cows are ruminants that emit large amounts of methane which is about 25 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide and mainly responsible for the comparatively high GHG emissions associated with producing cheese. According to Finnish scientists, figures do not change if the milk comes from sheep or goats. To the contrary, sheep emit even more methane than cows and goats do.
But should you feel depressed now if you are a cheese loving vegetarian because of environmental concerns? Rather not. Although profound research is lacking, the carbon footprint of your diet definitely improves when mainly eating low-fat and soft varieties of cheese, such as mozzarella, feta, brie or camembert. These kinds of cheese necessitate a much less emission-intensive production process due to shorter (or even no) aging. As a rule of thumb, the younger the cheese the better its environmental footprint. Sourcing your cheese from local farmers helps as well. Eventually, one should not forget that cheese is usually not eaten in large quantities. While it is common in many cultures to have a big piece of meat on your plate, few people eat a whole wheel of cheese at once (and it’s apparently not fun either).