Posts of the day are well-written posts, or groups of posts (a post and its responses) made in the Farmarian Facebook group; such posts or post-responses are reposted here as exemplifying the spirit of the community. We hope that they will also provide something of a repository for past discussions. Posts of the day will remain strictly anonymous, unless the participants request otherwise.
You can request to join the Farmarian Facebook group here.
Is the vegetarian diet really better for the environment? Recent research suggests the answers are a bit more complicated than some seem to think.
1) This study does not actually compare vegetarian diets to analogous omnivorous diets. In fact, it does not examine vegetarian diets at all: It examines the diet used as an exemplar by the USDA, which includes a lot more meat than in any vegetarian diet.
2) The diet used as an exemplar by the USDA calls for higher consumption of fish, which under the rubric used by this study, has among the highest environmental footprint of any food. But vegetarians do not eat fish, so using this data to say vegetarian diets are bad for the environment is simply illogical.
3) Examining the relative nutrition of different foods along only the metric of calories, as is done here between pig meat and lettuce, is a scientistic and misleading comparison. The human body is not a calorimeter, and does not accommodate the nutrients in foods by literally burning them, and so foods with similar caloric values have very different effects on nutrition and satiety. 1,000 kcalories of pig meat is .6 pounds of flesh; 1,000 kcalories of leaf lettuce is about 200 cups of the stuff (about 9 pounds). The arugula has 1000X the Vitamin C, 2000X the Vitamin A, 20X the iron, and 3X as much protein per calorie as the pork — and because the pork was surely raised conventionally (otherwise its land-use figures wouldn’t be so low), the arugula also has a much more favorable composition of fatty acids.
4) Most of the alleged environmental impact for the USDA-approved diet in this study arises because the approved diet removes the sweeteners and processed foods that are a huge part of the Standard American diet. Even assuming that these processed products are better for the environment than real food (which as we saw in point “3)” is VERY dubious), this processed gunk’s impact on human health is so severe that a little more environmental degradation would probably be justified given the alternative levels of human misery.
5) It is true that just because a diet is vegetarian does not mean that it’s better for the environment. But please don’t take this study as good evidence that, on balance, vegetarian diets are not significantly better for the environment.
Doesn’t this miss the point, though? No industrial diet is sustainable. I enjoyed the Washington Post article, because, despite its caveats, it still threw a monkey wrench in the stupid idea that if the world went vegetarian, it would be enough. It still wouldn’t be enough. Because industrial lettuce cultivation generates serious emissions as surely as industrial beef production does.
It’s the same reason I like Teicholz’s book. You aren’t going to produce health by simply excluding any single food group, any less than you will produce environmental friendliness by doing the same.
It’s the wrong paradigm. Yes, meat production may account for half of all agricultural emissions. But that’s still only half. It seems to me that few people are acknowledging this basic fact–instead scapegoating meat to deflect from what is much more fundamental.
Unless I have my facts backwards and mixed up (possible), environmental vegetarianism strikes me as a dangerous illusion.
You’re right that industrial agriculture is an intrinsic part of the problem. But it’s still true that meat-based diets are a huge driver of environmental degradation. Insofar as we’re using this study to say that eating less meat is insufficient, I think we’re on solid ground. But if we’re instead saying that it shows that eating less meat is unnecessary or even harmful, we’re fooling ourselves.
Keep in mind that sustainably-raised meat production requires much more resources than the meat that’s being used as the point of comparison in this study. Feeding the world on diets consisting largely of grass-fed beef would require many multiples of the land we currently use for agriculture, and would thus require lots of encroachment on wild ecosystems.
You’re of course right to say that vegetarianism is insufficient to say you’re being a good environmentalist. But diets with little or no meat have been shown time and again to implicate less environmental damage. (I’m speaking here of studies where vegetarianism is actually compared to analogous meat-heavy diets, unlike in this CMU study.) So if you’re trying to eat an environmentally-friendly diet, vegetarian diets aren’t a silver bullet, but they’re still a damn good rule of thumb.
Needing more land for livestock grazing: okay.
But what about carbon sequestration claims? These have not been falsified, as far as I am aware, at least not according to Savory, his associates, Salatin, and many farmers (including the grass-fed farmer that I buy from; who manages via rotational grazing).
I’m sure you’re familiar with this:
Some other very smart people endorse the counterarguments made by Savory against those who claim that the current trial literature has not supported his claims. ASSUMING this concept is legitimate, then beef, whether through rotational grazing, mob grazing, etc. might be able to play a constructive, even important role in climate change.
Feeding the entire world largely through beef requiring too much land? Sure. This may be true.
Withdrawing support even for ranchers that use rotational systems and can demonstrate increased soil carbon with such methods? Supporting them may contribute to diets that are significantly lower in emissions than vegetarian diets. Beef-heavy enough, might they even be carbon-negative? Perhaps only the vegetarian purchasing from the most progressive, agroecologically oriented farmers might be able to suggest something like that. So where does the score card stand in beef vs. plant-based? Is it still crystal-clear?
The long-term solutions to the problem of agricultural emissions will have to focus less on product and more on process, less on product categories and more on context, details, and management. Conventional vegetarianism may be better than the Standard American Diet, but shouldn’t we also be trying to set the bar just a little higher than that? If the climate crisis is as urgent as Naomi Klein and others say, these facts should also be a part of the discussion, since the bar may need to be raised a bit more quickly than is currently the case.
And for the record, I am concerned with actual deflection on the part of the liberal consensus with respect to this issue. Is moving the discussion closer to plant-based the authentic political dimension to be pursued here? Or is this effort simply going to have to be repeated when it is acknowledged that plant-based is not enough? As radical as it may sound, it actually seems more politically efficient to push everything at once–and perhaps even feasible in the current, rapidly changing cultural climate of food.
Am I wrong?
[This conversation remains ongoing. Updates and highlights will be posted sometime this month or in February.]