Mmm, sweetbreads
Photo: JacquesPALUT (iStock)

Germans consume twice as much meat as the global average. So it’s no wonder that a study focused on how Germany could reduce the carbon emissions generated by its meat consumption and agricultural industry. The new study, published in Environmental Science And Technology and thoroughly explained by Carbon Brief, offers recommendations for how the country—and potentially other meat-eating societies—could improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by their meat-supply chain. Most of the emissions from meat production come in the form of methane gas, which cows breathe and excrete via their manure.

The best way to reduce emissions generated by the meat industry is, of course, to eat less of it; if Germans ate half as much meat, they’d reduce meat-generated output by 32% (comparing 2016 levels to theoretical 2050 levels). Not surprising. Though plenty of people are loathe to cut their meat consumption even for Meatless Monday, let alone reduce it by half. The study produces another, perhaps more palatable suggestion: Change the type of meat consumed.

It wouldn’t be as beneficial as forgoing meat entirely, but substituting offal—internal organs of the animal which are generally passed over by consumers—for other cuts of meat could reduce German meat-industry emissions by 14%. This rests on some ambitious assumptions: Germans would have to substitute offal twice per week. Typical offal dishes include tripe (cow stomach), liver, beef tongue, sweetbreads (thymus glands of cows or calves), and veal cheeks. Some of these animal parts are considered standard fare in certain locales, but are lesser consumed in Germany—and the U.S., for that matter. The study explains how increased offal consumption would reduce greenhouse emissions: If consumers swap regular cuts of meat for offal, theoretically fewer animals overall would need to be raised and slaughtered.

Okay, so you’re not ready to eat sweetbreads twice a week. The study also finds that swapping poultry or pork for beef could reduce emissions, as raising pigs and poultry produces less methane than cattle raising. If Germans substituted those meats for beef a quarter of the time, they’d reduce emissions by 7%. So, to recap: The best behavior for reducing meat-industry emissions is to eat less meat; second-best is to substitute offal; third-best is to substitute pork or poultry.

What we haven’t noted is that livestock account for only about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, energy production accounts for a quarter of all global greenhouse emissions, while the catch-all term “industry” accounts for 21% and transportation for 14%. In my opinion, we should all do what we reasonably can to make personal choices that are environmentally conscious. But our actions are just a drop in the bucket compared to the power of energy companies, petrochemical manufacturers, and multinational megacorporations. Just 100 companies create 71% of global gas emissions, for example.

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If you want to get into the weeds in terms of corporate vs. individual responsibility for emissions—always a light-hearted dinner-party topic—this Vox Q&A with Richard Heede, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute, provides food for thought. When discussing whether we can entirely fault corporations for their environmental impacts, Heede says: “To be clear, it’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide… What the companies do is produce the fuels, extract and market the fuels, so that we can use them.” It’s something to chew on. That, or some sweetbreads.