Does anyone really know which diet is best for the environment?

cattle in pasture
CC BY 2.0 julieabrown1

It’s tempting for both vegetarians and omnivores to think they’ve got it all figured out. Selecting the type of diet one wants to follow is a highly subjective decision that reflects one’s personal lifestyle. People also tend to have strong opinions about what others eat, which leads to fierce rivalries between different dietary paths.

A thought-provoking article in The Star called “Which foods are the worst for the environment?” challenges our individual assumptions that we’re all doing the best thing for the environment. Vegetarians may think they’re saving the earth by not eating animals, and conscientious omnivores might think they’re making smart choices by exclusively eating grass-fed, pastured meat, yet choosing the optimal environmental path is never black-and-white.

Vegetarians should consider calories, which the article’s author Tamar Haspel calls “the great equalizer.” A kilogram of beef provides 2,280 calories, whereas a kilogram of broccoli provides 340 calories. You’d have to eat 6.7 kilograms of broccoli to get the same number of calories as the beef, which represents a whole lot of agricultural space, water, nutrients, and time to grow.

Interestingly, cheese has a higher carbon footprint than pork or chicken, and Lloyd Alter once wrote that it should be the next thing to go after red meat, if anyone wants to reduce their footprint.

Omnivores should realize that grass-fed meat isn’t as idyllic as it seems. In many ways, it’s less efficient and more polluting than conventional confinement agriculture. Animals are grown more quickly, which means they’re around for fewer total days, generating less manure and requiring less feed. Grass digestion creates more methane than grain digestion. Of course this doesn’t make confinement methods acceptable for many people (myself included), but Haspel points out that these are all facts worth considering.

Omnivores could do to consider alternative forms of meat, instead of always relying on meat that comes from farms. What about insects as sources of protein, or the hordes of Canada geese, deer, and wild pigs whose populations grow out of control and start to cause damage? Eating those animals could actually result in a net benefit for the earth.

The most important thing is to choose a diet that makes one feel good, both physically and emotionally. If killing animals is at odds with someone’s beliefs, that choice must be respected. Personally, I do eat meat, but I wholeheartedly share Haspel’s philosophy that “we should eat less of it, pay more for it, use all of it, and know where it’s from.” Organic, free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free and local are labels that must accompany all meat that enters my kitchen.

Haspel’s article is a good reminder of the complexities of the food system, and how no one should get too uppity about what the best route is. “There are other arguments on both sides – so many that it’s easy to pick the ones that make the case for whichever kind of agriculture you’re inclined to eat.”

Does anyone really know which diet is best for the environment?
The meat vs. veggies debate is a lot more complex than it seems at first glance.

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