How bad is cheese for the climate compared to meat?

Many people who eat less meat for the climate find it difficult to eat less cheese. So what's the climate footprint of cheese compared to meat?

cheese burger

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Frank Holleman | 07-21-2021

Main learning: Cheese has a similar impact as chicken
Goal: Don’t replace meat with cheese
Impact: Medium 🌍🌎🌏⚪️⚪️

When I started eating less meat, I had no idea about the impact of cheese. I remember eating big blocks of cheese as a snack before going to bed.

I’ve noticed that eating less meat is not a big issue for many people once they are used to it. But eating less cheese? That’s the real hurdle. So how important is it to eat less?

I also created a video around cheese:

The challenge of the cheese footprint

When I started writing this post I immediately ran into a problem: there is not just one number for cheese.

It takes about 10 litres of milk to produce 1 kg of cheese. And since cows need a lot of land and feed, the environmental impact of cheese is quite high. But how high exactly? It depends…

The average climate impact around the world is more than double the Dutch average! That is mostly the result of super ‘efficient’ Dutch cows. If a cow can produce more milk per year, it means that the impact per litre of milk is lower.

The other reason for ‘efficient’ Dutch cows is that many farmers in the Netherlands are optimising their feed: giving the cows more or less protein, young or old grass, replacing some grass with corn. All these things influence how much methane a cow produces. And methane is the greenhouse gas that makes the impact of cows so much higher than other animals.

‘Efficient’ cows don’t mean Dutch people are off the hook. Because the total amount of milk and cheese in the Netherlands is also higher. We might have more efficient cheese but we make up for that by eating and producing more cheese than most countries (together with other European countries).

Besides, we need to ask ourselves if we really want these super-efficient cows. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Another factor that determines the impact is that every cheese requires different amounts of milk. In a later post we will look at the impact of different kinds of cheeses, but for now we’re going to compare cheese to meat.

And we’re going to use the Dutch numbers for the type of cheese that is most popular in the Netherlands: Gouda. So keep in mind, these numbers could be higher if you use data from other countries.

Cheese vs. meat

What might surprise you: even with the lower Dutch numbers, cheese has the same footprint as chicken! But we usually eat more grams of chicken than grams of cheese. So I made this chart of different products as you would buy them to make a dinner for 3-4 people.

Climate impact of cheese and meat portion sizes

I keep being surprised by the high impact of beef, and the relatively low impact of chicken.

A large part of the Dutch cheese consumption doesn’t come from dinner but from cheese sandwiches during lunch. So here is another comparison. Four slices of cheese have the same footprint as one chicken breast.

cheese and chicken

Per week, Dutch people eat around 220 grams of both. That means the cheese footprint of an average Dutch person is the same as their chicken impact. I’m not sure if that’s good news for KFC fans or very bad news for cheese lovers.

In this post we’ve focused on cheese and cooking. The main learning is not to replace all the meat with cheese when you’re trying to reduce meat. And once you eat less meat during dinner, the most important next step is to change the cheese sandwiches.

Conclusion: make cheese a luxury product

Meat is worse for the climate than cheese, especially since we usually eat bigger portions of meat. But cheese still has a high footprint.

We don’t have to ban cheese from our diets but it shouldn’t be a staple of everyday life.

Since discovering the impact of cheese I have made it a luxury product. I usually cook without cheese and don’t have it on my sandwiches anymore. But in the weekend I will cook a nice risotto with plenty of Parmesan or make a grilled cheese sandwich.

When you’re just starting on your sustainable food journey, cheese can be a difficult topic. I think the most important step is not to replace meat with cheese.

Cheese is a wonderful product. If we manage to enjoy it as a luxury instead of a standard ingredient we are a big step closer to a sustainable food system.

How is your cheese consumption and what have you tried to eat less of it? Let me know in the comments!

Tips to eat less cheese

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that this is even more difficult than eating less meat. So go for it, but don’t be too hard on yourself.

  • Try more Asian meals like curry and cook with soy sauce
  • Simply use less cheese: instead of buying a 200 g pack of grated cheese, buy a block of Parmesan and grate it yourself (a finer grating structure helps, too!)
  • Try alternatives for your sandwich, like peanut butter (also great source of protein!), or hummus with tomatoes and rucola.