Reducing Your Carbon Footprint through Change of Diet

By Randy Rosenthal

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What’s the best way to reduce your carbon footprint? A new influential study recently published in Science says: Go vegan.

The study is described as “the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.” To come to their conclusions, the authors J. Poore and T. Nemecek looked at data covering nearly 40,000 farms and 16,000 processors, packagers, and retailers. This means they studied the impact of the meat and dairy industry, from the bottom up, rather than the previous top-down approach using national data, which is why this study is so profoundly revealing. In doing so, they determined that without meat and dairy consumption, we could reduce global farmland use by more than 75% and still feed the world.

This conclusion rests on their finding that livestock uses 83% of all available farmland and produces 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions, yet meat and dairy consumption provide only 18% of our calories and 37% of protein. Based on this study, it seems that eliminating meat and dairy consumption from our diets is the best way to reduce our environmental impact. According to Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Does this mean that we should all become vegan? (That is, those of us who aren’t already.) By looking more closely at the research, it appears the answer is yes—that is, if we truly want to help the environment and alleviate global hunger. But how likely is this to happen? After all, there’s a lot of money in the livestock industry, and many powerful people will want to keep things as they are. Aware of this, the authors of the study say that, cumulatively, their findings support a self-moderating approach, in which “producers monitor their own impacts, flexibly meet environment targets by choosing from multiple practices, and communicate their impacts to consumers.” And yet the authors also emphasize that the mitigating impact will ultimately be decided by consumers, not producers. That is, the market will follow changing diets.

Even so, new research may not be enough for people to change their habits and make new lifestyle choices. After all, we’ve known for decades (at least) that eating less meat and more vegetables and fruits makes us healthier, yet today we have more meat consumption and more obesity and health problems than ever. It seems that knowledge alone isn’t enough. That’s why some people commenting on the study have proposed that we tax meat and dairy products, and also require labels that reveal the environmental impact of products. Both of these methods have been successful in curbing tobacco consumption over the past decades.

But is consuming dairy and meat products equivalent to smoking tobacco? Many people might disagree, even those who care about the environment and are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. They might buy an electric car, but they might not be ready to give up cheese.

The good thing is that they don’t have to. That is, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. While the authors do say that consumer avoidance of high-impact products is crucial in making a positive change, the main take-away suggests strategic adjustment, farm by farm, not a knee-jerk reaction to go on a vegan-proselytizing mission. Simply reducing our meat and dairy consumption would be a start in the right direction, and that might be a more realistic approach, at least to begin with.

Also, the authors found a variability in environmental impact based on where and how the meat and dairy is produced, which is crucial for implementing this moderate strategy. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land results in 12 times more greenhouse gases and uses 50 times more land than cattle raised in a natural pasture. (The emissions come from enteric fermentation, manure, aquaculture ponds, and also from slaughterhouse effluent.) Therefore, the authors conclude, if we replace just the most harmful half of meat and dairy production with plant-based food, we would receive two-thirds of the benefits we’d obtain by getting rid of all meat and dairy production.

Thanks to Poore and Nemecek’s study, we now know that eliminating meat and dairy from our diet will not only make us healthier, it will make the planet healthier. If we use more land to raise vegetables, fruits, crops, and other non-animal-based food products, we can feed more people while causing less damage to our environment. Sounds like a win-win.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at bestbookediting.com.

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