Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Inconvenient Truth; Local or Vegan?

Recently I’ve seen a lot on local foods. I even attended a presentation on the importance of supporting green markets, co-ops and local farmers back in January. As the bumper sticker saying goes: “No Farms, No Food.” And on a basic level I completely agree. But to what point is local meat acceptable? Clearly, murdering an animal within 100 miles of where you live is no more morally acceptable than murdering an animal across the country, but from an environmental standpoint, where do we stand? What is right; local or vegan?

Over the past few years, the popularity of eating “local” has burgeoned. It has doubled in retail sales, and recently even the environmental disaster known as Wal-Mart announced they are increasing the amount of local food they will carry in each store, currently comprising roughly 9% of all their food sales. This recent surge in popularity is most likely related to the tremendous success of authors like Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer, both of who urge consciousness when it comes to purchasing food, not to mention the enormous popularity of documentaries such as FOOD inc. With most of our food traveling around 1,500 miles to reach our plates and with gas prices skyrocketing it seems logical that food grown closer to home would have lower transportation costs and would therefore be both more cost effective, but more importantly environmentally friendly.

However, there is one catch. Most “local” eaters also support eating locally raised and slaughtered meat and they typically fail to mention the impact rising animals for food has on the environment. But fortunately, others have begun to make the connection. Ironman triathelte Brendan Brazier’s newest book Thrive Foods and this recent article published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology seem crystal clear. Even the United Nations reported that eating less meat is the most affective way to curb global warming.

While the authors of these works admit most food travels around 1,000 miles and 4,000 miles across the entire supply chain, transportation costs comprise only 11% of the total carbon footprint of that food. Instead nearly 83% of the carbon footprint of food comes from growing and producing it (the other 6% is divided among various steps unrelated to either transportation or production). Essentially, each food has it’s own greenhouse gas intensity level. Red meat has the most intense level, requiring nearly 150% more energy than even chicken. This is in part because cows release a high amount of methane gas. However, they also require more emission-producing care, raising their overall carbon footprint. Thus, beef and dairy are often listed as the two worst foods for the environment, local or otherwise.

The article continues along these lines, and ultimately concludes that shifting your diet away from meat and dairy and towards a more vegan diet even for just one day a week will dramatically lower your carbon footprint- even more than eating 100% local foods.

Livestock consumes more than seven times as much grain as the entire human population eats. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the food that U.S. livestock consumes would be enough to feed around 2.7 times the entire U.S. population if they simply followed a plant-based diet. If you are one of those people who hide behind the fact that you only eat meat from your local farmer (as if to justify participation in terror) Brazier shows, even eating local meat is simply inefficient. Brazier also answers the question about grass-fed beef. “If beef eaters in the United States were to switch to exclusively grass-fed beef,” argues Brazier, “one small steak about once every three weeks is all that would be available. There simply wouldn’t be enough to meet demand. And if more grazing land were to be created, of course deforestation would be the result.”[1]

These numbers speak volumes to me but at the same time, I do not want to suggest people should not buy local foods when they can. Rather, people should put an emphasis on always (or mostly) eating plant-based foods and supplementing their diets with local foods whenever possible. Especially as we move towards warmer months, farmers markets will be offering an increasingly large selection of farm fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, cutting out that 11% will make a difference in your own carbon footprint and you’ll also be supporting local farmers and local economies, two good ideas from any perspective!

Unfortunately for meat eaters (particularly meat eaters who use the label “liberal” and supposedly care about these issues) this science is getting increasingly difficult to deny or ignore. The Inconvenient Truth that Al Gore doesn’t want us to know about, is no matter how many prius’ you park in the garage or energy efficient light bulbs you plug in, it doesn’t add to a hill of beans when compared to your food choices. There is a Convenient Truth, however. That is, eating vegan is delicious, healthy and easy. 

Best wishes and health,

[1] Brazier, Thrive Foods 40.

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