Food consumption – animal based protein

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 26 Nov 2019
13 min read
Photo: © Hans /


EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Animal product consumption (animal protein)

Yellow triangle: stable or unclear trend

Reduce the overall environmental impact of production and consumption in the food sector - 7th EAP

Red circle: it is unlikely that the objective will be met by 2020

Per capita consumption of total protein from animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, and fish and seafood) remained relatively stable in the EU over the period examined (2000-2013). Per capita animal based product consumption is expected to increase over the 2014-2020 period for the vast majority of animal product categories and sub-categories.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) aims to reduce the overall environmental impact of production and consumption in the food sector. Animal products have been found to cause high environmental impacts, primarily related to their production. For example, meat and dairy products contribute on average 24 % of the environmental impacts from total final consumption in the EU. Therefore, reducing the consumption of animal products and shifting to other sources of protein has the potential to reduce environmental impacts related to food production and consumption. Per capita total protein consumption from animal products (meat, dairy, eggs and fish and seafood) has been used here as a proxy indicator for the overall environmental impacts from food production and consumption. The per capita protein consumption from animal products remained relatively stable in the EU between 2000 and 2013 with a modest increase up to 2007 followed by a slight decrease to 2013. During the implementation period of the 7th EAP (2014-2020), the per capita consumption of animal-based products is expected to increase in the majority of the animal product categories and sub-categories.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP calls for changes in consumption patterns and lifestyles to reduce the overall environmental impact of production and consumption, in particular in the food, housing and mobility sectors (EU, 2013). Meat and dairy products contribute around 6 % of the economic value but 24 % of the environmental impacts caused by total final consumption in the EU, based on a life cycle assessment method (Weidema et al., 2008). The food sector contributes strongly to climate change, eutrophication, land take and a host of other environmental problems (Bailey et al., 2014). This briefing presents trends in the consumption of protein from animal-based food products (meat, dairy, eggs, fish and seafood), as a reduction in the demand for these products and a shift to other sources of protein has the potential to reduce the EU’s environmental footprint while also delivering health benefits to parts of the population (EuroHealthNet, 2013). For the housing and mobility sectors, please see the Household energy consumption briefing (AIRS_PO2.8, 2018) and the Transport greenhouse gas emissions briefing (AIRS_PO2.9, 2018).

Policy targets and progress

The food system is a major driver of environmental change, with implications for energy and water security. Although the EU has no explicit food policy, the food system cuts across a wide range of policy areas including agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and health. The 7th EAP and the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (EC, 2011) share the objectives of reducing the impact of food production and consumption and reducing resource inputs by tackling food waste in particular[1].

Diets characterised by a high intake of animal products often result in consumption of saturated fat and red meat in quantities that exceed dietary recommendations. Consequently, dietary changes to a more varied diet, including shifting to non-animal based sources of protein, may have positive health effects for parts of the population. In addition, the production of animal products such as meat and dairy requires large areas of land and results in high greenhouse gas and nutrient emissions. In fact, a large proportion of the nutrient losses in Europe are related to the livestock sector. Next to improvements in nutrient use efficiency in all food chain activities and reduction of waste throughout the food chain, changing diets towards lower consumption of livestock products have been identified as the main levers to reduce nutrient losses (EEA, 2017a). Production of fish and seafood, on the other hand, especially impact marine but also freshwater ecosystems, while fish and seafood is recommended as part of a healthy diet, and aquaculture represents the most efficient method by which to convert feed to edible animal protein (EEA, 2016).

Overall, reducing the environmental pressures from food will require changes along the whole food value chain, starting with a more sustainable agriculture, sustainable food processing and transport, as well as diets that rely less on foodstuffs with high environmental impacts.

Figure 1 shows indexed EU trends over the 2000-2013 period for the per capita total animal protein consumption as well as for the most important animal based product (meat, dairy, and fish and seafood) categories and key subcategories.


Figure 1. Trends in per capita animal based protein consumption, total and by selected animal product category, EU

NoteDotted lines show key sub-categories of the aggregated animal product categories.

The per capita total animal protein consumption in the EU remained relatively stable from 2000-2013. It increased modestly up to 2007 and reduced slightly after that year. This trend masks a diverging trend in consumption of protein from different types of animal products: consumption of protein from cheese and poultry increased by about 15 % while bovine meat decreased by nearly 14 %. EU citizens on average also covered more of their protein needs with fish and seafood in 2013 than in 2000.

European dietary changes may have been brought about by increasing awareness of healthier diets, as well as price changes. Beef prices, for example, reached record highs in 2013 (EC, 2014).

Figure 2 shows the EU per capita protein consumption for 2000 and 2013 for several meat, dairy, egg, and fish and seafood products. Cheese and pig meat are the preferred animal based protein sources, followed by poultry, milk and bovine meat. Fish and seafood contribute 11 % to animal based protein supply.

Figure 2. Average per capita protein consumption of selected meat, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products, EU

On average, an EU citizen consumed 22 kg per year of animal-based proteins and 16 kg per year of plant-based proteins (FAOSTAT, 2018).

Different food products have very different environmental footprints. Intensively farmed beef has a carbon footprint seven times that of poultry. Land use and eutrophication loading are six times and four times higher, respectively, per kilogram. The environmental footprint of pork lies somewhere between the two for most impact categories (Weidema et al., 2008). Animal welfare issues related to intensive methods of poultry rearing are also a consideration when evaluating impact. In addition, while grazing animals can contribute positively to the biodiversity of agricultural land, overgrazing contributes to the lack of improvement in the conservation status of habitats associated with agricultural ecosystems; see EU protected habitats briefing (AIRS_PO1.8, 2018).

In terms of consumption amounts of animal products (i.e. not just protein), the average EU citizen ate 2.2 kg less beef in 2013 than in 2000 (a 13 % decrease), but 3.0 kg more poultry (a 15 % increase), with pork consumption remaining relatively stable (EEA, 2017b). This shift will have led to a reduction in environmental impacts but this may have been somewhat offset by a 2.2 kg per capita increase in cheese consumption. The shift from beef to poultry is also in line with health guidelines in guarding against cardiovascular disease (EuroHealthNet, 2013).

The EU citizen ate on average about 1.7 kg more fish and seafood in 2013 than in 2000, an 8% increase. About 1.5 kg of this increase was consumption of fish. The remaining increased fish and seafood consumption comprised mainly of crustaceans (e.g. prawns, mussels) and cephalopods (e.g. squid). The increase in the consumption of fish and seafood during this period is in line with healthy eating advice, as long as the fish and seafood are not too heavily contaminated with hazardous substances.

It is difficult to assess the environmental implications of this trend. The EU imported around 55 % of its fish and seafood in 2013 from all continents of the world, with northern Europe being the largest supplier of fish and seafood. More and more fish is produced in aquaculture. Aquaculture generates, inter alia, emissions of nutrients, antibiotics and fungicides and relies on capture fisheries for feed (EEA, 2018); however, aquaculture is still one of the most efficient methods to convert feed into edible animal protein (EEA, 2016). Globally, aquaculture production has been increasing steadily while capture production has stabilised since the 1990s (EEA, 2016).

About 67 % of commercial fish and shellfish stocks in Europe’s seas are not in good environmental status while fishing beyond sustainable levels is one of the reasons for this; for further information on the status of commercial fish stocks please see the Marine fish stocks briefing (AIRS_PO1.5, 2018). Although the situation has started to improve, in particular in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, the progress may be compromised by the increasing consumption of fish, depending on the species consumed.

Looking towards 2020, the 2013 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform is more neutral with respect to particular agricultural products than earlier CAPs. However, the EUR 500 million aid package for farmers that was adopted in 2015 is aimed specifically at supporting cattle and pig farmers (EC, 2015b).

Projections by the European Commission Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development (EC, 2017) show that the per capita consumption of the vast majority of the examined animal-based product categories is expected to increase over the 2014-2020 period. This includes cream, cheese, butter, skimmed milk powder, whole powdered milk, sheep and goat meat, poultry meat and eggs. Per capita consumption of yoghurt, beef and veal meat and of pig meat is expected to remain more or less stable, while the consumption of fresh milk is expected to decrease. Fish and seafood consumption were not examined.

Different food products have very different environmental footprints. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the examined animal-based product categories is expected to increase and the consumption of the high environmental footprint veal meat and pig meat is expected to remain stable. Further implementation of the environmental acquis and some efficiency gains in the food sector should limit some of the environmental impacts associated with the expected increase in the consumption of animal based products. However, there is no sufficient evidence that, by 2020, such improvements will outweigh the environmental impacts associated with the expected increases in consumption and will reduce the overall environmental impact of the food sector. In fact, both ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture increased year-on year in the 2014-2016 period (see AIRS_PO3.2, 2018 for ammonia emissions and Eurostat, 2018 for greenhouse gas emissions); ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are dominated by emissions associated with livestock. There was also no discernible improvement at EU level in the nitrogen balance from agricultural land in 2014 and in 2015 which was the latest available year (see AIRS_PO1.2, 2018).

Finally, the increasing focus at both EU and Member State levels on reducing food waste through actions in the Circular Economy Package (EC, 2015a), the revised Waste Framework Directive (EU, 2018) and Member States’ waste prevention programmes is, nevertheless, a positive development.

Outlook beyond 2020

As a major greenhouse gas emitter, the food sector may need to undergo significant changes if the EU is to meet its 2050 target for an 80–95 % reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Current policies aimed at reducing the impact of food are mostly focused on the production side, e.g. reducing inputs and better manure and slurry management. On the consumption side, the policy focus is largely limited to labelling schemes and reducing food waste. Given the health relevance and implications of meat, dairy, fish and seafood consumption for the population, potential environmental and health co-benefits, as well as conflicts and trade-offs, should be explored when considering options to reduce environmental pressures related to food consumption. However, tackling meat and dairy consumption will be important for both achieving the gains needed by 2050 in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Weidema et al., 2008; Bailey et al., 2014) and reducing reactive Nitrogen to sustainable levels (Sutton et al., 2011). 

About the indicator

The indicator shows indexed and absolute levels of protein per capita consumption of selected meat, dairy, eggs, and fish and seafood products in the EU between 2000 and 2013. The indicator also shows in indexed form the total per capita EU consumption of animal protein for 2000 to 2013. The data were extracted from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) statistics database (FAOSTAT, 2018). The indicator is defined as the supply of these products to the final consumer. The amount of animal protein actually consumed may be lower than the quantity shown in the indicator because of wasted edible food by households and other final consumers. The FAO uses national food composition data to calculate the protein content of different foodstuffs and the resulting protein consumption (FAOSTAT, 2001).

Footnotes and references

[1] Halving food waste per capita at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains has been adopted as a target within the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN, 2015), and was confirmed as an EU goal in the 2015 Circular economy action plan (EC, 2015a). The revised Waste Framework Directive (EU, 2018) requires EU Member States to address food waste prevention in their waste prevention programmes and to monitor food waste generation, starting in 2020.


Bailey R., et al., 2014, Livestock – Climate change’s forgotten sector: Global public opinion on meat and dairy consumption, Chatham House Research Paper. ( accessed 26 November 2018.

EC, 2011, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe’ (COM(2011) 571 final of 20 September 2011).

EC, 2014, ‘Short term outlook for arable crops, meat and dairy markets in the European Union. Winter 2014’ ( accessed 26 November 2018.

EC, 2015a, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Closing the loop — An EU action plan for the circular economy, COM(2015) 614/2, Brussels, 2.12.2015.

EC, 2015b, ‘Aid package for farmers published’ ( accessed 26 November 2018.

EC, 2016, ‘EU agricultural outlook. Prospect for the EU agricultural markets and income 2016-2026’ ( accessed 27 November 2018.

EC, 2017, ‘EU agricultural outlook. Prospect for the EU agricultural markets and income 2017-2030’ ( accessed 27 November 2018.

EEA, 2014, Environmental Indicator Report 2014: Environmental impacts of production-consumption systems in Europe, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2015, State of Europe’s seas, EEA report No. 2/2015, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2016, Seafood in Europe, A food system approach for sustainability, EEA report No. 25/2016, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2017a, Food in a green light, A systems approach to sustainable food, EEA report No. 16/2017, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2017b, ‘Food consumption – animal based protein (SCP 020)’ ( EEA indicator) accessed 26 November 2018.

EEA, 2018, ‘Aquaculture production (CSI 033/MAR 008)’ ( accessed 26 November 2018.

EU, 2008. Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive) (OJ L 164, 25.6.2008, p. 19).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', Annex A, paragraph 43c (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).

EU, 2018, Directive (EU) 2018/851 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2018 amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (OJ L 150, 14.06.2018, p. 109–140).

EuroHealthNet, 2013, ‘Massive new study shows EU should act on red meat to save lives and costs’ ( accessed 2 February 2018.

Eurostat, 2018, ‘Greenhouse gas emissions by source sector (source: EEA)’ ( accessed 26 November 2018.

FAOSTAT, 2001, Food Balance Sheets – A handbook ( accessed 27 November 2018.

FAOSTAT, 2018, Food Supply – Crops Primary Equivalent ( accessed 27 November 2018.

Sutton M., et al., 2011, ‘The European Nitrogen Assessment – Sources, Effects and Policy Perspectives’, Cambridge University Press, doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511976988, Cambridge.

Weidema B.P., et al., 2008, Environmental improvement potentials of meat and dairy products, Report for the European Commission Joint Research Centre ( accessed 27 November 2018.

UN, 2015, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, A/RES/70/1, United Nations, New York.


AIRS briefing

AIRS_PO1.5, 2018, Marine fish stocks, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO1.8, 2018, EU protected habitats, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO2.8, 2018, Household energy consumption, European Environment Agency.

AIRS_PO2.9, 2018, Transport greenhouse gas emissions, European Environment Agency.

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage


Filed under:
Filed under: food, food consumption, meat
Document Actions