Beef, plant-based or cultivated: what is the climate impact of a burger?

Elizabeth Smith

The hamburger is a patty of ground meat, usually beef, in a flattened shape. When sandwiched between two slices of bread, it gives rise to a sandwich that, as its name suggests, originated in Hamburg. And became popular thanks mainly to US fast food restaurants.

Greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on climate

Greenhouse gas emissions (of which CO2 is the best known) are assessed using an environmental indicator known as the 100-year global warming potential (GWP100), expressed in kilograms of CO2 equivalent (CO2e).

This indicator measures the impact these emissions have on the climate. Importantly, emissions are not the only relevant aspect in assessing the impact of food production and consumption. But they are certainly among the most significant issues of our time.

The environmental impact of hamburgers

According to a study conducted by Trinity College Dublin, it was found that a 200 gram hamburger, prepared from meat from farms in Ireland, produces 7.9 kg of CO2 equivalent. This value corresponds to the direct emissions generated by a FIAT 500 petrol car travelling a distance of 67 km.

If we move to Brazil, the impact of a 200 gram hamburger increases to 11.6 kg of CO2 equivalent. The main reason for this difference is the production of animal feed, which is done differently in Brazil. In this country, agriculture makes more extensive use of fertilisers.

Reducing the climate impact of burgers

It is important to consider that the climate impact associated with a hamburger can be significantly reduced when opting for a different meat, such as chicken. However, it is also crucial to take into account the welfare of the animals on the farms where the chicken meat comes from.

Interestingly, even in the case of poultry, a significant part of greenhouse gas emissions is linked to the production of the feed used. Therefore, in the overall assessment of the environmental impact of burgers, both the choice of meat and the origin and production process of the feed play a crucial role.

The climate footprint can be further reduced by opting for plant-based burgers. A study conducted by Trinity College Dublin estimated that a vegetable burger has an impact of 2.6 kgCO2e. This is a 67% reduction compared to beef.

It is important to note that despite the plant-based choice, a certain level of greenhouse gas emissions are present. As in all human activities. And these emissions are mainly attributable to the cultivation and processing of plant-based ingredients.

A complex assessment of environmental impacts

The study results represent the climate footprint of products from the production of raw materials to their transformation into a ready-to-eat product. The burger types analysed are comparable in terms of nutrition, cooking time and shelf life.

However, if we ask ourselves which burger is the absolute best from an environmental point of view, the answer is not simple. Greenhouse gas emissions alone do not exhaust the complexity of the impacts of food on the planet (and people).

In fact, the assessment includes aspects ranging from soil consumption to animal welfare and stress on water resources. All of these elements are highly relevant to agricultural and livestock systems and the food industry.

Read also: Without intensive livestock farming, CO2 pollution would be reduced by 68%

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