Study: Vegetarian Diets Are Way Worse For The Environment Than Eating Bacon

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Here’s something counter-intuitive: vegetarianism and other diets could be worse for the environment than previously thought.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers published a new study claiming following federal government’s dietary guidelines may cause more environmental harm than experts previously thought based on the amount of resources and greenhouse gas emissions associated with each calorie of food consumed.

“Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon,” Paul Fischbeck, a professor at CMU and one of the study’s co-authors, says in a statement.

Researchers examined the environmental impacts of growing, distributing and storing foods the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says should be part of a “healthy” diet — basically eating lots of fruits, vegetables, dairy and fish, while cutting meat consumption.

“Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think,” Fischbeck says. “Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken.”

USDA proposed such guidelines to counter obesity, but is the environment being put at risk by eating less bacon?

CMU researchers found that while simply eating less without following USDA guidelines lessens your environmental impact, switching up your diet to follow USDA healthy food guidelines “increases energy use by 43 %, blue water footprint by 16 %, and GHG emissions by 11 %.”

CMU also looked at why reducing your caloric intake and eating what the USDA recommends still increases your environmental footprint. The study found this diet “increases energy use by 38 %, blue water footprint by 10 %, and GHG emissions by 6 %.”

“There’s a complex relationship between diet and the environment,” says Michelle Tom, a Ph.D. student and study co-author. “What is good for us health-wise isn’t always what’s best for the environment. That’s important for public officials to know and for them to be cognizant of these tradeoffs as they develop or continue to develop dietary guidelines in the future.”

CMU’s study comes after nearly 200 countries signed an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale with the goal of limiting global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius. As part of that push, the U.N. and environmental groups have been encouraging people to eat less meat.

Environmentalists argue livestock, like cows and sheep, are a major driver of global warming because they emit methane when they belch or fart — not to mention all the resources that go into raising them. The U.N. has even encouraged people to eat insects as a way to substitute livestock in their diets.

But is all meat bad for the environment? Not really.

As it turns out, pork and poultry emits less emissions than some fruits and vegetables when ranked based on greenhouse gas emissions per calorie. Writer Tamar Haspel writes in The Washington Post that if “you stop eating beef, you can’t replace a kilogram of it, which has 2,280 calories, with a kilogram of broccoli, at 340 calories.”

“You have to replace it with 6.7 kilograms of broccoli,” Haspel writes. “Calories are the great equalizer, and it makes sense to use them as the basis of the calculation.”

“The claim that vegetarianism is kinder to the planet also fails to consider a couple of kinds of meat that aren’t on the Environmental Working Group’s chart,” Haspel writes. “Deer and Canada geese do active damage in the areas where they’re overpopulated, and wild pigs leave destruction in their path wherever they go. Eat one of those, and do the planet a favor.”

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