These Animal Proteins Have the Lowest Carbon Footprint, According to Research

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Becoming more environmentally friendly means reducing your energy consumption and finding ways to be more sustainable.

How can you help the planet in your daily life? One strategy is to focus on the lowest-carbon proteins when grocery shopping. Most meat production requires emissions, so reviewing how much carbon dioxide (CO2) each resource emits is essential.

Here are the seven most sustainable animal proteins on the market. 

1. Chicken

When searching for the lowest-carbon proteins, chicken is high on the list. Poultry generally has a lower environmental impact because these animals don’t have rumens. Cattle rumens expel methane by belching, thus adding heat to the atmosphere.

How would your carbon footprint change if you removed beef and focused on chicken? A 2021 Journal of Cleaner Production study found that a diet with small poultry, eggs and yogurt would reduce CO2 emissions by 50% worldwide. 

Chicken has a lower carbon footprint than beef, but the agriculture industry could further reduce its environmental impact. The most significant hindrance to chicken sustainability is feed. A 2022 Foods study found over 70% of poultry’s ecological impact stems from feed production.

What can fix the problem? The researchers concluded nutrients with reduced impact and a better feed conversion ratio (FCR) could lower chicken liabilities. 

2. Turkey

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Turkey is another popular poultry protein. These animals are similar to chickens because they have no rumens and are omnivores. While they eat small reptiles, turkeys mostly rely on grass, grains, nuts and berries.

An average turkey has a slightly higher carbon footprint than chickens due to their size. Male turkeys can grow up to 4 feet tall and weigh 25 pounds, thus requiring more food during their growth cycles. 

While poultry boasts more sustainability than cattle, it’s crucial to consider how the producer raises its animals. For instance, the lowest-carbon proteins typically have organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

If your turkey has this label, you have assurance the producer protects animal welfare and doesn’t use growth hormones or antibiotics. Sourcing humanely treated animals is critical to sustainability. 

3. Duck

grilled meat with parsley toppings on top
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Chicken and turkey are standard poultry to see at the grocery store. While duck may be harder to find, it’s a noteworthy animal protein because of its sustainability.

Like chickens and turkeys, ducks efficiently convert feed to meat or eggs. These water-friendly animals need less food than livestock and can forage their food. Ducks can grab plants and insects inside and outside the water, reducing their need for commercial feed. 

Ducks also boast the advantage of egg production, making them versatile protein sources. You may find duck eggs are creamier and richer than those from chickens, making them great by themselves or in other recipes.

Production can become unsustainable when transporting it worldwide. Ducks are only found on some continents, so bringing their meat to faraway lands can increase their environmental liability.  

4. Rabbit

Rabbit is another less common but noteworthy meat for sustainable animal protein. These creatures live on different continents with various subspecies that are more common in specific areas. For instance, you’ll find jackrabbits in North America and the Bunyoro rabbit in central Africa.

Regardless of the species, rabbits are among the lowest-carbon proteins because of their low resource dependency and high efficiency. 

Rabbits have a natural sustainability advantage because of their small size. Tiny animals don’t need as many resources as the average cow, sheep or goat.

If you visit a rabbit farm, you’ll see these creatures feeding on grass and leafy vegetables. You don’t need extensive feed production to ensure rabbits have enough nutrition.

While the meat is great, rabbits also foster sustainability through nutrient-dense manure that requires minimal resources in processing. 

5. Eggs

delicious breakfast with fried eggs on wooden board
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While you can eat poultry for its meat, don’t forget the eggs they lay.

Chicken, turkey, ducks and other birds deliver the eggs you put on the breakfast table. While the USDA regulates eggs for quality, you can produce this protein in your backyard with a few chickens.

Because they come from poultry, eggs naturally have a lower carbon footprint than red meat. The sustainability and nutrients let this food fit into numerous diets. 

Eggs are one of the lowest-carbon proteins because poultry uses resources more efficiently than cattle.

Which bird produces the most sustainable eggs? A 2023 Nutrition Bulletin study found that hen eggs needed less water and land and produced fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than other animal proteins.

The research also emphasized how eggs are inexpensive and crucial to worldwide diets. Therefore, it’s important to prioritize them as sustainable protein.  

6. Fish

selective focus photography of grilled slice of meat and tomatoes

You may think of land animals when considering the lowest-carbon proteins. However, including marine life is essential because of its prominence in worldwide diets.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says nearly 500 million people depend on fisheries to survive. Fish generally have a low carbon footprint, depending on the production methods. Some companies have a high environmental impact because of their unsustainability.

Fish have inherent environmental benefits because they don’t require land clearing or specific crops for their diets. Wild-caught seafood doesn’t impact the environment much, but fishing boats need fuel at sea.

A 2023 Science of the Total Environment study concluded that restricted fishing gear and smaller trawlers could further reduce the adverse effects of fishing. Otherwise, it has a lesser impact than livestock on the environment. 

7. Insects

macro photo of five orange ants
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While unconventional, insects are among the lowest-carbon proteins available to humans and animals. You might not find cockroaches or scorpions at local restaurants, but cooked bugs are delicacies in other countries.

For instance, you may discover chocolate-covered ants in Australia or fried scorpions in China. If you can get past the thought of eating bugs, you’ll find insects to be tasty and sustainable protein sources. 

Insect protein boasts sustainability because it requires fewer resources than conventional animals. A 2023 Frontiers in Sustainability study concluded insects have a higher feed-to-food conversion efficiency and faster growth rate than cattle.

The researchers also found bugs produced fewer GHGs and ammonia while needing less space and water. Insect protein will be critical for the future of human diets and animal feed. 

Prioritizing the Lowest-Carbon Animal Proteins

Sustainable living means doing everything possible to limit your environmental impact. While energy consumption at home is vital, you should also review your grocery lists for eco-friendliness. When shopping, prioritize the lowest-carbon animal proteins to help the planet.

  • Beth Rush

    Beth Rush is the green wellness editor at Body+Mind, a health and wellness brand. She covers topics like sustainable agriculture and plant-based recipes. You can find Beth on Twitter @bodymindmag. Subscribe to Body+Mind for more posts by Beth!

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