Calm down, meat eaters. While you may have set the Internet alight this morning with informing the world that vegetarian diets are bad for the environment—worse than meat-centric diets—it might help to read the actual scientific study itself first and listen to the researchers themselves.
The researchers didn’t find that vegetarianism is bad for the environment. They found that not every plant product is more environmentally friendly than every meat product. In fact, the three hypothetical diets that the researches analysed weren’t even vegetarian—the analysed diets were based on the greater calorie recommendation from the USDA, which involves the intake of fruits, vegetables, dairy, and fish/seafood—uh, that’s pescetarianism.
Regardless, the researchers behind this new study have come out in defence and said that news headlines stating that vegetarianism is more harmful to the environment than eating meat is a total mischaracterisation of what they found. Rather, in terms of environmental impact, it turns out that not all foods in a particular food group are created equal, Michelle Tom and Paul Fischbeck of Carnegie Mellon University told The Huffington Post.
The point of the study, published in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions in late November, was to look at the environmental impacts of following the dietary guidelines recommended by the US Department of Agriculture. They wanted to know if we just decreased calories alone, would we have less of an environmental impact than if we decreased calories and changed the proportion of what we eat.
Despite the multitude of frenzied clickbait news headlines swirling around on the Internet currently, the researchers freely and honestly admit that many articles have been printed in the literature that expressly counter their findings. The study bibliography is filled with studies that actually contradict their findings.
Dr. Garth Davis, who is cited as purchasing the $45 study, has said that the study is a meta analysis—meaning they used data from several studies in order to reach values for carbon emission, energy consumption, and water consumption. The conclusion is that switching to the “idealised” diet based on the USDA guidelines would create higher total costs. Dr. Davis goes on to explain that while the study makes for an interesting read, there are some fundamental tragic flaws within it. Their data clearly shows that meat consumption produces the most greenhouse gasses, so how can following the USDA guidelines of less meat lead to more greenhouse gasses?
It’s easy with the creation of a logic fallacy involving the purposeful misrepresentation of information. Instead of meat, the researchers assume a greater intake of fish and dairy, both which are heavy energy consumers (fish is not part of a vegetarian diet). They also assume that the calorie deficit lost with meat needs to be made up with fruit. Given fruit does not have a lot of calories this will lead to high demand for fruit, which requires more production costs. Fruit doesn’t actually produce greenhouse gas—it is produced because it has to be shipped. The costs come in the decentralised agribusiness model that requires shipping across the world.
Shifting to a more plant based diet does not simply mean just eating fruits. Starches, nuts, seeds, and beans are vital calorie sources that are much easier to grow in harsh conditions with less emissions, less energy and less water. According to the researchers data, if we shifted to beans and starches instead of farmed fish and dairy, their results would be vastly different.
Some journalists are emphasising that calorie for calorie, producing lettuce creates more greenhouse gas emissions than bacon. However, these are only two foods. Rationally, no vegetarian or pescetarian is going to replace each pork calorie with a lettuce calorie. Citing this data point alone purposely ignores the researchers’ finding that kale, broccoli, rice, potatoes, spinach and wheat (just to name a few) all rank lower than pork in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
One hundred grams of pan-fried bacon, for example, contains 541 calories—to get 541 calories from lettuce you would have to eat 3.6kg of lettuce. 3.6 KILOS—and no one is going to do that. Calories are made up with things like grains and pulses, which according to this same study, have low impacts.
Similarly, in terms of “blue” water usage—where they are referring to the fresh water that’s withdrawn from ground and surface water, as opposed to water that falls directly from the sky as rain—produce like cherries, mushrooms and mangoes needs more water than any meat product. But corn, peanuts, carrots, and wheat all use less water than all non-seafood meat.
Basically, news headlines have created a huge straw man—the USDA guidelines—and are purposely mischaracterising and misrepresenting the findings, and misleading the public. Researchers did not find that vegetarianism is bad for the environment, they found that not every plant product is more environmentally friendly than every meat product.
A Sustainable Future
Indeed, saving the planet requires thinking outside of the box and huge paradigm shifts—we cannot use the status quo. While sustainable farming practices look at developing soil in multiple different environments allowing for more local farming of fruits and veggies, which would decrease the energy use and greenhouse gas emission in transportation, our major problem is the vast amount of our agricultural farming is done to create farmed animal feed.
The huge demand that farmed animals put on the production of soy and grains has completely changed the way the world farms. Large farmable lands are utilised for grazing and for production of feed for farmed animals instead of for food that human’s need to fulfil the dietary guidelines. The fact is, to save the environment, we would have to greatly change our whole concept of farming and soil management. This study does not take into account deforestation, which may be the biggest problem that faces a world that continues to increase its demand for meat.
Already we’re seeing vertical indoor farming as an inevitable global solution where, for example, a single 25,000 square indoor farm can yield up to 10,000 head of lettuce a day—which is 100 times more per square foot than traditional methods where 40% less power, 80% less food waste, and 99% less water usage than outdoor fields. This would certainly measure up better against bacon calorie for calorie.
While some vegetables can be worse for the environment than some meat, if you’re looking for an excuse to keep throwing back the steaks and burgers guilt-free, this isn’t it.