Did you know cheese can be more carbon intense than meat?
This is one of the things that was surprising for us back when we started Project Count and in our
conversations with our users this is one of the food items that repeatedly surprised people.
But first some background and numbers to set up this blog article. Of course cheese is not always more carbon intense than meat and the carbon footprint for both has rather wide ranges.
Carbon footprint of Cheese
The range we display here is between 1,6 Kg - 4,8 Kg of CO₂e per 250g cheese. The number is taken out of Mike Berners-Lee's "The carbon footprint of everything". The reason why the range is so wide is that cheese takes very different forms, can be made from milk of different animals and therefore requires varying amounts of input and processing (i.e. aging).
Even at the lower end of the range, cheese is still a carbon intensive food item. The reason for this is that any milk going into a cheese has a rather complex value chain already. Animals need to be raised, fed, cared for and milked, followed by an energy intense processing step in a dairy plant.
The amount of milk needed to make cheese doesn't help either, making 1 Kg of cheese requires up to 10 Kg of milk.
One factor that increases the carbon footprint further is that the animals producing the milk (at least cows and sheep) are ruminants. That means their digestion of gras that turns into the protein required for the milk produces Methane. Unfortunately Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse warming gas than CO₂ (~25x actually). Goats are slightly better in that regard, but they are also less efficient at turning feed into milk.
The other factor that drives the carbon footprint of a Cheese is the type. For softer, low fat cheeses like mozzarella, brie, feta or camembert the required amount of milk is a bit lower and you save on the carbon intensive aging process that requires a controlled environment over extended periods of time. The older and harder a cheese is the more carbon intense it will be per Kg of cheese, Parmesan will therefore closer to the upper end of our estimated range. Another way to think about this is that with the increasing hardness of a cheese the percentage of water decreases. Adding water to any food item tends to decrease the carbon footprint per weight unit, while adding little nutritional value. Some argue that's why a comparison by weight is not the best approach but instead one should compare footprints by nutritional value - this is a topic for a separate post though :
If you want to compare actual carbon footprint number for different cheeses with the scientific sources we can highly recommend the big climate database
Now that we have gotten some idea on the carbon footprint of cheese, what drives the carbon intensity let's turn back to
the initial question. Is cheese better or worse than meat and what does that mean for people that decide to cut back on meat
for environmental reasons.
Comparing the carbon footprint of hard cheeses with for example chicken, it turns out that chicken is typically less carbon intense than say a block of parmesan of equal weight. Lower than beef, which is generally hard to beat in terms of carbon intensity food, but higher than the non-vegetarian chicken.
Well the comparison by Kilogram is not entirely fair for the cheese. Whereas it's culturally completely accepted / common to have a big piece of meat on your plate, it's much less common to eat a whole block of cheese at once. If you are just sprinkling a bit of parmesan onto your pasta dishes 250g are naturally going to last you quite a while, whereas 250g chicken will typically be consumed in one meal.
Nonetheless it is probably sensible to think of cheese more like a meat and therefore a treat that one should celebrate. Similar to meat cutting back from a cheese heavy diet will decrease your carbon footprint.