If you want to have an impact on your carbon footprint, don’t start with vegetables.
In the quest for taking personal action to reduce one’s carbon footprint, the argument for veganism and vegetarianism has been repeated many times. For example, this article mindlessly claims “Eating more plant-based meals is the fastest way to shrink your carbon footprint,” and offers no evidence at all.
Here’s another example from downtoearth.org:
“Study after study has shown that there’s a strong correlation between climate change and the production of animal-based foods.” (emphasis added)
The problem is there is also a strong correlation between the consumption of whiskey and reading the Bible, but it doesn’t mean one causes the other. Nonetheless, the article goes on to this claim:
“…that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to protecting the world from the worst impacts of climate change.”
That’s a big claim for a meaningless correlation.
The confusion is made worse because studies conflict. The same article also claims: “A widely publicised report published by the Worldwatch Institute indicates that 51 per cent of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions can be attributed to animal agriculture, specifically to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels and pigs which are raised and killed for food.” Besides the 51 percent claim being preposterous in comparison to burning fossil fuels, less biased studies say something very different. Plus the quoted link is broken.
According to the EPA, agriculture only accounts for 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions, and only a portion of that is from livestock. In other words, even if the entire country became vegan — an unlikely scenario — the total reduction would only be 3% or so. Hence, the impact on the size of your carbon footprint will also be quite small.
How Diet Really Matters
This is not to say that food doesn’t matter — it does. The same EPA report shows that transportation (29%), electricity generation (25%), and industry (23%) combine to account for over three-quarters of US greenhouse gas emissions. Given that, where you get your food is far more important than the actuality of what you eat. In other words, beef from a local farm that is butchered locally is far different, from a carbon perspective, than beef in a feedlot-raised, slaughter-house processed, food factory processed, frozen and shipped beef patty that ends up in your bag from a fast food restaurant. A vegan jar of palm hearts — with trees taken from tropical areas, processed in industrialized facilities, shipped from as far away as Indonesia, and resulting in a jar you need to recycle — may have far more carbon footprint than a hunk of Colby cheese produced in your own state. Less extreme, but also likely, is that an egg from down the road carries less carbon footprint than the head of lettuce you buy at the store, which is shipped in from California’s central valley. Veganism is not an automatic winner as far as carbon footprint goes.
Instead of asking, “What am I eating?” the better question is, “Where did it come from?” Think about the process. The more you can remove transportation, processing, shipping (especially refrigerated shipping), and cold storage from your individual food chain, the more impact you will have reducing your carbon footprint. The bigger benefit is to stay outside the system, rather than to change what you eat. And if you still want to be a vegan, then by all means, go ahead and be a vegan.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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