Monday, February 18, 2013

Rant: Are Vegetarians Dooming Our Environment?

Meat lovers are sometimes cast as environmental villains however maybe the situation is different. Maybe vegetarians and vegans pose a greater threat. It is a situation worthy of deeper examination.

Vegetarians and vegans often claim that their dietary lifestyle is better for the environment, that raising animals for meat creates far more greenhouse gases. This claim is accepted as a truism by many and few people question it. However, considering the vital importance of battling climate change, we need to seriously question all of our assumptions. Any significant mistakes that we make could be devastating. Asking questions about such widely held assumptions should be acceptable.

Based on some new evidence, it is possible that vegetarians and vegans could be dooming our environment more than meat eaters.

A new article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discussed a French study which tried to ascertain whether plant based diets were more environmentally friendly or not. The study confirmed that growing plants created less greenhouse gases than raising animals. However, that is only one part of a larger equation and is not determinative of the end result. When everything else is considered, a diet high in plants may actually lead to more greenhouse gases than a meat heavy diet.

How can that be true? It is because vegetarians and vegans need to eat lots of produce to create the equivalent amount of energy and calories that would be gained from a smaller portion of meat. When you add up the amount of greenhouse gases created by the larger amount of plants needed for a meat equivalent diet, the total may very well be larger than the meat total.

As an illustrative example, let us assume that the production of one portion of meat causes four times the amount of greenhouse gases as one portion of veggies. The problem is that a person may need to eat five or more portions of veggies to gain an equivalent amount of energy as that one portion of meat, which means their total greenhouse gases would be greater. The study indicated numerous people who ate more of a plant based diet were probably causing more greenhouse gases than those who are a more meat based diet.

The study is not definitive but it should make you reconsider your assumptions. Sustainability is not black or white, but is rather a complex issue where numerous factors need to be considered. Don't automatically assume eating meat is worse than eating plants. That is an overly simplistic viewpoint and doesn't take into consideration matters such as the total amount of plants that are necessary for a proper diet.

So stop demonizing meat eaters.


Marie Payton said...

Hi Richard, the study states that "when the researchers looked the grams of carbon dioxide emitted per 100 kilocalories the gap narrowed. 857 grams of greenhouse gas, the highest level, was still emitted to produce 100 kcal of meat, but it was only three times the emissions level from a similar amount of energy from fruit and vegetables."
So eating meat is (at best) creating 3x more than the equivalent energy of vegetables.

What about legumes? They are not mentioned in this story and have some unique agricultural properties and are a huge source of calories for me.

I would also argue that most vegetarians consume far fewer calories than meat eaters (in general) so the comparison of needing to get the same calories does not hold up for me.

More thoughts to come ...

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Marie:
Thanks for the comments.

Despite the numbers, the actual diets of the plant based study participants involved more greenhouse gases than meat diets. So though maybe you eat less calories than meat eaters, that was not what happened in the study. Though obviously this study is but the tip of the iceberg, and a much larger study is warranted.

Though legumes are not specifically mentioned, it does talk about plant based diets so might include legumes, and not just veggies/fruits.

Anonymous said...

My Portuguese - wise mother used to say; "The OX and Man gets his strength from what he eats!"
and "Lettuce is for Rabbits"

Humans are "Carnivorous"...end of story!

Maria Dias - Tia Maria's Blog

Michelle Collins said...

I'm a vegetarian, but I agree with you on a lot of points here. I really chose to stop eating meat because I felt healthier and more energetic on a meat-free diet, and have no appreciation for the crap that goes into the meat that's on our supermarket shelves. But, with that being said, most of our supermarket produce isn't safe, either. If people want to be good to our environment, they should be making educated decisions about what they eat, no matter their dietary choices - buy as local as possible, read labels, and support local farmers. I do hate, though, when vegetarians and vegans try to make their diets sound holier than thou - it gives us other vegetarians, who are just eating what we want to eat, a bad rap.

world watcher said...

The problems with the French study includes its failure to compare like to like, but also much more, as documented at

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Maria for your comments. Your mother seems wise.

Thanks Michelle too. It is a complex issue, and extremism on either side is bad. We all need safe food and that is another vital issue that needs more attention.

Richard Auffrey said...

World watcher:
Thanks for your contribution and that is an informative article that everyone should read. It adds much of value to this discussion.

glutera said...

thanks richard,..