Dietary Choice and Environmental Impact

Ten days ago a study conducted by Cranfield University, funded by the World Wildlife Fund, was covered in the news.  It suggested that eating a vegetarian diet may cause more environmental harm than eating read met.  I would be remiss if I did not post this article, originally from the Times.  The article takes into consideration the need to import plant-based protein sources, the environmental impact of the production of those protein sources, yet also touches on the variety of ways that vegetarian diets can be balanced.  In any capacity, it’s interesting to read.

February 12, 2010

Tofu can harm environment more than meat, finds WWF study

Ben Webster, Environment Editor

Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat, according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu.

The findings undermine claims by vegetarians that giving up meat automatically results in lower emissions and that less land is needed to produce food.

The study by Cranfield University, commissioned by the environmental group WWF, found that many meat substitutes were produced from soy, chickpeas and lentils that were grown overseas and imported into Britain.

It found that switching from beef and lamb reared in Britain to meat substitutes would result in more foreign land being cultivated and raise the risk of forests being destroyed to create farmland. Meat substitutes also tended to be highly processed and involved energy-intensive production methods.

Lord Stern of Brentford, one of the world’s leading climate change economists, caused uproar among Britain’s livestock farmers last October when he claimed that a vegetarian diet was better for the planet. He told The Times: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.”

However, the Cranfield study found that the environmental benefits of vegetarianism depended heavily on the type of food consumed as an alternative to meat. It concluded: “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.”

A significant increase in vegetarianism in Britain could cause the collapse of the country’s livestock industry and result in production of meat shifting overseas to countries with few regulations to protect forests and other uncultivated land, it added.

Donal Murphy-Bokern, one of the study authors and the former farming and food science co-ordinator at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “For some people, tofu and other meat substitutes symbolise environmental friendliness but they are not necessarily the badge of merit people claim. Simply eating more bread, pasta and potatoes instead of meat is more environmentally friendly.”

Liz O’Neill, spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society, said: “The figures used in the report are based on a number of questionable assumptions about how vegetarians balance their diet and how the food industry might respond to increased demand.

“If you’re aiming to reduce your environmental impact by going vegetarian then it’s obviously not a good idea to rely on highly processed products, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that the livestock industry causes enormous damage and that moving towards a plant-based diet is good for animals, human health and the environment.”

The National Farmers’ Union said the study showed that general statements about the environmental benefits of vegetarianism were too simplistic. Jonathan Scurlock, the NFU’s chief adviser for climate change, said: “The message is that no single option offers a panacea. The report rightly demonstrates the many environment benefits to be had from grazing pasture land with little or no other productive use.”

The study also found that previous estimates of the total emissions of Britain’s food consumption had been flawed because they failed to take account of the impact of changes to the use of land overseas.

Salad days

• About a quarter of the world’s population eat a predominantly vegetarian diet

• There are 3.7 million vegetarians in Britain

• Only 2 per cent of the French population don’t eat meat

• There is a longstanding myth that Adolf Hitler was vegetarian but recent research suggests that he ate at least some meat

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6 thoughts on “Dietary Choice and Environmental Impact

    • The suggestions made by the article are indeed confusing, yet I suppose that this – overall – really gets to the root of a balanced diet, and that animal and plant protein can work. Both ultimately have some sort of environmental impact, yet both can be produced in an environmentally “sustainable” way. Is it a matter of “what works for you?” For me, I’ll stick with animal protein (my clear preference).

  1. I believe that in environments like ours where there is abundant pasture and water meat is far more sustainable then a diet in grains/legumes. But I take it even further, why are we then feeding it to our cattle? Granted I have a gluten allergy so I am biased.
    I love that you posted that French statistic. The french have such a neat view of the world.

  2. Ulla — That’s exactly my thought, too. Use of the resources available to you are the way to go, and thus there are a variety of animal production systems. Why are they fed? Areas capable of growing grains are also capable of producing “more meat per acre” than if they grew and fed only grass. As for the legumes … you’re opposed to feeding alfalfa, too? Or just soybeans?

  3. I’m confused to with these so-called research results. But I guess the key is not overdoing anything. If you eat meat, do not eat lavishly. If you eat vegetables, do not waste them away thinking that they are harmless to the environment. The residue of both is the one which is very dangerous.

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