Is Your Vegetarian Diet Bad for the Environment? We Unpack a Recent Study

Meat production is harmful to the environment right? Those of us who follow environmental news have heard it said again and again: Cut down on meat consumption and youll be reducing your carbon footprint. The UN has estimated that about 18 percent of global carbon emissions can be traced back to meat production, and that doesnt even begin to take into account the issues of water waste and antibiotic use. Nitrous oxide and methane are two of the greenhouse gases commonly cited as problems, with the shipment of meat also bearing some of the blame for the environmental impact of animal products.

But a recent study has challenged the notion that a vegetarian diet is better for the environment. Research by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University suggestedthat switching to a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, dairy and fish (admittedly not a part of manyvegetarian diets) actually increases carbon emissions compared to simply reducing calorie consumption overall. The study has raised a few questions, and more than a few eyebrows. Is vegetarianism harmful to the environment? Should we all stop eating lettuce and eat more bacon (as some headlines have suggested)? The short answer is no. But first, let’s unpack the study.

The study

Researchers compared the carbon emissions of three scenarios: One that followed the current USDA dietary guidelines, one that decreased calorie consumption overall, and one that maintained calorie consumption but increased the percentage of calories that came from vegetarian and pescatarian sources, including dairy and fish. The scientists then examined each of the diets for three factors, including water consumption, energy expenditure and greenhouse gas emissions.

The results

The scientists found that reducing calories overall – not switching to a vegetarian or pescatarian diet – was most effective at reducing environmental impact. This is because calorie for calorie, some vegetables, fish and dairy require even more resources to produce than some meat sources.

Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think, Paul Fischbeck, professor of social and decisions sciences and engineering and public policy, said in a news statement. “Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken …You cant lump all vegetables together and say theyre good. You cant lump all meat together and say its bad.

Some writers have been quick to point out that theres tremendous variation in the calorie efficiency of both vegetables and meats. In her article for the Huffington Post, Hilary Hansen points out that while lettuce and cucumbers may not be particularly calorie efficient, veggies such as broccoli, rice, potatoes and kale fare much better. It’s also well-known that beef is profoundly worse for the environment than othermeat sources.In fact, some sourceshave suggested that beef produces 11 times more greenhouse gases than staples such as wheat or potatoes. Furthermore,locally, sustainably raised meats have a very different environmental impact than animal products from large factory farms in faraway states.

Also, as Rachel E. Gross points out on Slate, most vegetarians aren’t replacing their bacon calories with heads of lettuce. They’re probably replacing those calories with items like nuts, beans and whole grains, which have a lower environmental impact thanpoultry or pork and are more calorically efficient than lettuce or cucumbers.

You may also notice the “vegetarian” section of the study didn’t look at a fully plant-based diet, but instead included dairy and fish. Fish and dairy production bothhave environmental issues of their own. Overfishing is a huge problem for the world ecosystem, and dairy production generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, as it requires similar livestock-raising techniques to meat production.

Nevertheless, the study still challenges the notion that swappingmeatsfor vegetables, fish and dairy is not necessarily the best move for climate change. How can we modify our diet to reduce our climate impact?

Tips for reducing your carbon footprint through diet

Increase calorie-efficient foods such asbroccoli, rice, potatoes and kale. Reduce consumption of red meat, beef, dairy and shellfish. (You can see a list of the foods scientists looked at in this Washington Post articleand how they affect greenhouse gas emissions).
Only buy what you can eat: The researchers noted that reducing food waste would be the best way to cut down on carbon emissions. According to another study published this year, meat waste is particularly bad for the environment.
Support local farms: IFLScience reported that research shows a diet based on guidelines commonly found in Europe would be environmentally friendly. In this scenario, people get the majority of their food – whether its meat or veggies – from local sources.
Cut down on calories: Calorie reduction is carbon footprint reduction! Bonus: Research shows that reducing your calorie intake can increase your longevity. Just make sure to stay within a healthy window of total calories. Everyday Health reports that you need a bare minimum of 1,200 calories to stay healthy, but active people will require upward of 2,000-2,500 per day.
Buy sustainable seafood: Overfishing is a huge problem for the environment. Seek out seafood sources that have been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Is Your Vegetarian Diet Bad for the Environment? We Unpack a Recent Study

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