Explaining the best and worst protein sources for the environment



Protein is one of the basic building blocks of life and an essential part of our diet as humans. We cannot live without protein, but many protein sources cause significant harm to the environment, animals, or both. Fortunately, there are many more environmentally friendly options, and many of the most sustainable protein sources are widely available for those looking to reduce their environmental footprint.

Let’s break down the best and worst protein sources for the environment.

What is protein and why do we need it?

Short answer:

Protein is a nutrient made up of amino acids, and the body cannot live without protein. There are seven different categories of proteins, each serving a different purpose. There are nine essential amino acids that humans can only get from food, and it is important to eat protein sources that contain all of these amino acids.

Longer answer:

Protein is a type of nutrient that plays an important role in our survival. There are approximately 10,000 types of proteins, each of which performs a different function in the body. Our immune system, digestive system, bone and muscle growth, metabolic regulation, blood clotting, and many other important human functions would not be possible without protein.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 types of amino acids used by the human body, and they combine in different ways to form different amino acids. Although many amino acids are produced within the body, nine types are not. These “essential amino acids” can only be obtained from food.

Although there are thousands of different proteins, they generally fall into seven major categories.

  • antibody
  • enzyme
  • hormone
  • contractile protein
  • structural protein
  • transport protein
  • storage protein

Many foods contain varying amounts of protein, but some may not contain all nine essential amino acids. We need essential amino acids to survive, so it’s important to eat enough protein, but it’s also important to pay attention to where that protein comes from.

What is the difference between complete and incomplete proteins?

Foods that contain all essential amino acids are sometimes called “complete proteins.” Quinoa, soybeans, buckwheat, hemp seeds, and blue-green algae are complete proteins, as are animal products such as meat and dairy products. Foods that do not contain all essential amino acids are called “incomplete proteins” and include nuts, whole grains, rice, and vegetables.

It is worth noting that different incomplete proteins lack different amino acids, so they can be combined in a diet to create the equivalent of a complete protein. For example, rice and beans when eaten together form a complete protein.

How does protein production affect the environment?

Short answer:

Protein production requires large amounts of land and water. Food production typically accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

Longer answer:

Because proteins come from a wide variety of sources, the environmental impact of their production varies. For example, raising beef cattle has a much different environmental impact than growing buckwheat fields.

That said, there are some common ways protein production impacts the environment.

These impacts are so different that there is no single metric to measure the overall sustainability of food. How do you assess the sustainability of food when it requires a lot of water to make, as is the case with many nuts, but produces very little greenhouse gas emissions? Is it?

Although there is no perfect answer to this question, most experts use greenhouse gas emissions as an indicator of a food’s overall environmental footprint.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders and some of the most sustainable proteins you can consume.

Worst protein for the environment: beef

Beef is the most environmentally harmful protein produced. All animal-based proteins leave a larger carbon footprint than proteins from other sources.

Greenhouse gases are often measured in carbon dioxide equivalents, or CO.2-When specifically evaluating protein equivalents, experts typically focus on how many kilograms of CO there are.2-eq is released for every 100 grams of protein produced.

Using this as an indicator, the worst proteins for the environment are those derived from animal foods. Beef is the worst offender.Beef on a cattle farm produces an average of 49.89 kg of carbon dioxide2-eq for every 100 grams of protein. Beef from dairy cows is relatively sustainable, producing 16.87 kg of CO2 equivalent per 100 grams.

Next is lamb and mutton at 19.85kg per 100g, followed by farmed shrimp, beef from dairy cows, and cheese.

Other protein sources that are worst for the environment

Most of the meat we consume is produced in factory farms, and factory farms are generally terrible for the environment and the animals that live there. Beef is the worst offender, but there are many other animal protein sources that wreak havoc on the planet.

farmed shrimp

Aside from beef and lamb, farmed shrimp has the worst carbon footprint of any meat, as opposed to wild-caught shrimp. Producing the equivalent of 100g of shrimp protein releases 18.19kg of carbon dioxide.2– Equivalent (Farmed shrimp, often confused with shrimp, also contributes significantly to the destruction of mangrove ecosystems.)


Pork emits 7.61 kg of CO2-eq per 100g of protein is less than most other meats. While this statistic does not reflect the horrific and alarming treatment that pigs endure on industrial farms, pork still has one of the lowest carbon footprints for animal meat.

However, waste from pig farms is notorious for contaminating rural areas and the environment.

farmed fish

The ocean absorbs carbon. This is one reason why farmed fish has a relatively low carbon footprint, at 5.98kg per 100g of protein. However, fish farming has other harmful environmental effects, leading to pollution, sea lice, and lack of biodiversity. Fish farming is also harmful from an animal welfare perspective.

On the other hand, the environmental impact of commercial fishing in general is devastating, resulting in the death of ecosystems, destruction of coral reefs, and other negative environmental impacts.


Chicken emits 5.7kg of carbon dioxide, making it the lowest carbon footprint of all major meats.2Equivalent amount per 100g of protein. But this should not obscure the fact that chickens, like pigs, suffer greatly in factory farms, despite their relatively low carbon footprint.

Again, protein sources that need to be fed first, like chicken, still have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based proteins that skip that step. Poultry farms are harmful to the environment for other reasons as well. Runoff from poultry farms (called waste) can end up contaminating waterways with high levels of nutrients, causing toxic algae blooms, mass fish die-offs, and “dead zones” in water sources. . .


Chicken eggs have a slightly lower carbon footprint than chicken meat, emitting approximately 4.21 kg of carbon dioxide.2-eq is calculated for each gram of protein produced. This is less than all meat, but still more than all plants.

And, as explained above, poultry farms cause environmental damage through runoff and require additional production of chicken feed.

of most sustainable protein source

Use of CO2-eq output is the main metric per 100g of protein. Here are some of the most sustainable sources of protein, in no particular order.


For environmentalists looking for a quality protein source, there’s nothing better than lentils. 100g of protein produces only 0.84kg of CO2 equivalent.

Like nuts, lentils sequester carbon dioxide, making them carbon negative when grown sustainably. Unlike nuts, they do not require prohibitive amounts of water to grow. Additionally, lentils sequester nitrogen so they can grow without fertilizer.


Another rich source of protein with a low environmental impact is peas, with a CO footprint of just 0.4kg.2-Equivalent By the way, this is almost 100 times less than beef. They also have a much smaller water footprint than nuts.

tofu (soybean)

The soybeans used to make tofu emit only 1.98 kg of carbon dioxide.2-eq for every 100g of protein.

Some say demand for soybeans is contributing to deforestation in Latin America, as much of the cleared land is used to grow soybeans. While this is true, it is also worth noting that only 7% of all soybeans are produced for human food. The overwhelming majority of soybeans (77 to 96 percent worldwide) are used in factory farms to feed livestock.


Beans are also one of the most environmentally friendly sources of protein, with the production of 100g of bean protein emitting approximately 0.37kg of CO2.2-equivalent


Nuts are one of the most environmentally friendly sources of protein on the planet. Carbon dioxide emissions from aquaculture are only 0.26kg2It has fewer equivalents per 100g of protein than any other protein source. Planting nut trees in previously abandoned grasslands and meadows can even become carbon negative. This means that it causes a net reduction in carbon emissions.

However, some nuts require large amounts of water to produce. For example, making almonds requires slightly more water than beef. But that is more than made up for by the huge difference in greenhouse gas emissions between the two foods. Some nuts and legumes, such as peanuts, require much less water to produce than meat.

lab-grown meat

Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat, is a fairly new innovation that allows scientists to create real meat in the lab without slaughtering animals. Although the technology is still in its infancy, it is already more carbon efficient than meat, with just 5.6kg of carbon dioxide emitted to produce 100g of lab-grown meat protein.2– Equivalent As the technology of lab-grown meat continues to advance, that number will almost certainly decline.


Another very environmentally friendly protein source, but often overlooked, quinoa produces approximately 0.63 kg of CO .2-eq for every 100g of protein.


Spirulina is believed to be one of the oldest life forms on Earth, but that’s not even the most impressive thing about it. It is also rich in nutrients, contains no sodium or cholesterol, has cholesterol and blood pressure lowering effects, and is known to reduce allergies.

But the most amazing thing about spirulina is that when farmed using the right techniques, it is completely carbon neutral and produces no carbon dioxide emissions.2-eq at all.


Potatoes are a much better source of protein than people give them credit for. It is also relatively sustainable, with a carbon footprint of 2.71 kg.2-eq for every 100g of protein they provide.


Many people associate protein with meat and dairy products, but consuming protein from animal sources has a negative impact on the environment.

Fortunately, there are many other ways to get protein that is cheaper, more sustainable, and just as delicious when prepared correctly. Lentils, tofu, seeds and nuts are the richest plant-based protein sources and are more environmentally friendly.

It’s also worth remembering that many people overestimate the amount of protein they need and forget about other important nutritional components such as fiber. A balanced, whole-food, plant-based diet is the most environmentally friendly way to ensure you’re getting everything your body needs, not just protein.

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