Eating Clean

When Vegetarian Is Less Sustainable

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In the past year, dozens of commentators and news outlets have called for a global reduction of meat consumption in order to stave off climate change. But there’s a really important nuance to this decision when it comes to sustainability.

Here’s an inconvenient truth: If your version of vegetarian eating relies heavily on processed foods, switching away from meat isn’t nearly as helpful as it seems.

First, let’s look at meat emissions. Both animal and plant farming practices in the U.S. are far more sustainable than practices used abroad, and the environmental footprint of our domestic agriculture is far less than the global average. That means even if every farmer in the U.S. reduced their greenhouse gas emissions to zero, unsustainable practices abroad would continue to contribute to the bulk of the farming emission problem. Livestock emissions specifically only account for 3 percent of emissions in the US.

That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. But people who choose to eat vegetarian or vegan to reduce their emissions should take care not to actually increase the environmental impact of their diet by accidentally switching from a lower emissions category to a higher emissions category.

Transportation and energy usage (such as for electricity and heat) are by FAR the two biggest emissions categories. Together, they make up about 60 percent of U.S. emissions.

And yes, meat must be transported to reach the market (which is one reason why eating locally raised food is always the more sustainable choice). But so does produce. And so does packaged food. Especially packaged food with a long shelf life, even if they’re vegan or vegetarian.

So many people assume that foods are environmentally friendly just because they’re made without animal products.

But when plants have to go through further processing to become food, the process involves more than just powering a factory or grinding wheat into flour. You need to consider the environmental impacts of the producing chemicals involved in food processing, which can often be more immediately harmful than greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, manufacturers often use a solvent called hexane to make soy protein products. Hexane helps separate oil from protein, so the manufacturers can get more usable products from each soybean. Unfortunately, hexane is made from crude oil, and is a byproduct of the petroleum industry. The environmental footprint of soy protein products includes the weight of fossil fuel refining as well.

Bet you won’t find that on the label.

Plants grown the wrong way can also have a negative impact. Monocropping, or growing the same plant (like wheat or soy) in the same soil year after year destroys soil health. Synthetic fertilizer production is increasingly reliant on natural gas. When that fertilizer is applied to farmland improperly, it can pollute waterways and destroy natural animal and plant life.

This article in The Guardian has a really great quote as well:

Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertilizer, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonizing sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.

If anything, clean eating is the best way to reduce not only the emissions impact from your food, but the impact of environmental toxins as well.

Bottom line: Be mindful that whatever foods you choose to eat are actually an improvement over the ones you’re replacing.

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