Here's why butter is bad for the environment - according to scientists

Wednesday, 11th March 2020, 11:29 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th March 2020, 11:29 am

The carbon impact of dairy butter can be more than three and a half times that of its plant-based equivalents, according to a new report - with flatulent cows partly to blame.

Food production is a significant cause of global environmental change, with the food sector responsible for up to 30 per cent of greenhouse gases.

In a large-scale study investigating the environmental impact of animal-derived products compared to their plant-based alternatives, scientists carried out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on something we as a country love - margarine.

Is butter better?

The researchers looked at 212 plant-based spreads and margarines sold across 21 European and North American markets and compared the greenhouse emissions in the production to 21 dairy butters.

It emerged the ‘mean average’ CO2 equivalent for plant-based spreads and margarines was 3.3kg for each kg produced - compared to a 12.1kg of CO2 equivalent for dairy-based products. That's an increase of more than three and a half times.

With the production of raw milk - the key ingredient in dairy butter - 39 per cent of the greenhouse gases come from enteric emissions, which is methane caused by cows burping and breaking wind. In fact, just one 250g pack of dairy butter results in the equivalent of 1 kilogram of cow emissions (kg CO2 eq).

And while carbon dioxide regularly gets bad publicity, methane is about 80 times more powerful than its cousin at trapping heat and is responsible for 25 per cent of global warming.

Margarine has 'a significantly lower climate impact'

Contrary to the arguments about the environmental benefits of locally sourced meat and dairy produce, the study revealed that, when comparing the life cycle of a margarine or plant-based spread with dairy butter, margarine and plant-based spreads consistently had a significantly lower climate impact.

Cattle feed production and livestock rearing (including cow-related burps, farts and manure management) contributed significantly to climate change impacts, with a higher impact than most other factors.

Packaging for plant-based spreads makes up eight per cent of its emissions, compared to one per cent for butter, with the latter often wrapped in a lightweight foil or paper parchment as opposed to a tub.

The life cycle assessment, which is the largest of its type to date, concluded that margarines and plant-based spreads have lower impact than butter in terms of climate, water and land.

The study

The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment was written by a group of scientists based on a study of Upfield’s margarines.

It covered the full life cycle of the products, including production stages such as crop cultivation, oil extraction and refining, transport of oils, production of all other ingredients, blending into final products, packaging, distribution, refrigeration at retail and at the consumer home and end-of-life treatment of packaging.

Across these factors, the total environmental impact was measured, with metrics including climate change impact, water use and land use.

With dairy butter-based products, it includes feed production, dairy farming, processing raw milk into butter and cream, packaging, distribution, storage at consumer home and packaging end-of-life treatment.

The life cycle assessment of Upfield’s margarines and spreads is in line with growing scrutiny around the environmental impact of the food we eat – especially meat and dairy – and changing consumer attitudes to plant-based foods.

'We rely too heavily on meat and dairy'

Sally Smith, head of sustainability at Upfield, said, “In order to achieve emissions targets designed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050, there needs to be a fundamental transformation of our food system. In Western countries especially, we currently rely too heavily on meat and dairy.

"It is our responsibility as a forward-thinking company to understand and act to address the impact of our plant-based products on the environment."

The report follows separate research by Dr Hannah Ritchie, from the University of Oxford, who concluded the 'eating local' mantra was a 'misguided piece of advice' when discussing climate change. Her study found transport emissions are often a very small percentage of food’s total emissions – only six per cent globally.

For more information on the LCA, you can visit upfield.com/environmental-footprint