Andreas Späth

Are my eating habits wrecking the planet?

2013-02-19 07:06

Andreas Späth

I'm a meat eater. That's not an easy thing for someone who considers himself to be an environmentally conscious person to admit these days. It certainly doesn't always go down well in eco-activist circles.

I'd be lying if I told you that my omnivorous ways didn't seriously concern me though. You see, the fact that I regularly consume the flesh of animals does have undeniable and profound impacts on my ecological footprint.

It takes a lot of plant matter to feed animals to get them to a stage where they can, in turn, be eaten by me - plant matter that I could consume directly if I were a vegetarian or vegan without having to first convert it into meat which requires loads of fossil fuels and adds substantially to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions attributable to me personally. And that's not even taking into account the famously voluminous methane discharges of farting cows.

As a result of this calculus, a somewhat Orwellian equation has become common among environmentalists: vegetarian good (vegan even better), carnivore bad.

But is it really that simple? A French study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition at the end of January suggests not.

The authors investigated the climate change impact associated with the consumption of self-selected diets among 1918 French adults. They estimated the complete lifecycle GHG emissions of all of the foods each of the individuals consumed and found that the equivalent of about 1600 grams of CO2 were released into the atmosphere for every 100 grams of meat produced. That's approximately two and a half times more than for the same amount of fish, pork, poultry and eggs and a whopping 15 times that for fruit, vegetables and starches.

High and low emissions

When determining GHG emissions for the nutritional energy content of various foods, however, the picture started to shift: 100 kilocalories of meat caused emissions of only three times the amount released by 100 kilocalories of fruit and vegetables. When looked at in this way, fruit and vegetables caused similar GHG emissions to pork, poultry and eggs, all of which were worse than starches, sweets, salty snacks, fats and dairy.

Based on their subjects' overall dietary habits, the scientists concluded that:

1. "The consumption of sweets and salted snacks was negatively correlated with diet-related GHGEs [GHG emissions], whereas the consumption of animal products and of fruit and vegetables was positively associated with them". Translation: the more sweets and salty snacks you eat, the lower your emissions; the more meat, fruits and vegetables you eat, the higher your emissions.

and

2. "After adjustment for energy intake, high-nutritional-quality diets had significantly higher GHGEs (+ 9% and + 22% for men and women, respectively) than did low-nutritional-quality diets". Translation: healthy diets based on fruits and vegetables result in higher emissions than less healthy animal-based diets.

Is this just a case of stereotypical Gaelic otherwiseness? A number of critics are suggesting that we should treat the results with some caution, and I agree. According to the authors' methodology, vegetarians would have to munch about four kilograms of veggies and fruit to achieve an energy intake comparable to a standard helping of meat. And surely nobody would argue that we should sustain ourselves on chocolate bars and crisps.

The independent research group Shrink That Footprint has recently ranked the carbon footprints of various diets as follows:

- meat lover: 3.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per person (t CO2e)
- average: 2.5 (t CO2e)
- no beef: 1.9 (t CO2e)
- vegetarian: 1.7 (t CO2e)
- vegan: 1.5 (t CO2e).

Generalisations not useful

So does what I eat affect the planet? Of course it does! Should meat eaters commit to cutting down on their consumption? Yes, absolutely.

I don't think that sweeping generalisations are all that useful, however. Does the meat I'm eating come from free-range cows or ones fed soya in a feedlot? Is your quinoa imported from Chile or do you grow it yourself?

These are important considerations: food and everything it involves is estimated to contribute 19 to 29% of global anthropogenic GHG emission.

It strikes me that the ultimate take-home phrase form the French study is "self-selected". It's up to us as individuals to ensure that the food we eat is as sustainable as possible; that we know where it comes from, how it was made and what impacts it has.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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