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2013-02-15

Do Vegetarian Diets Harm the Environment?

I'd like to clear up some "guff" that's been circulating in some publications. A new study out of France suggested that a nutritious diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables might not be the greenest in its environmental credentials.

In the study, the diets of 1918 French adults were analysed and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by producing the plants, fish, meat, fowl and other ingredients were calculated. From the results, the researchers challenge the widely held belief that a healthy planet = healthy people (and vice versa).

While he study confirmed that growing fruit and vegetables doesn't produce as much GHG as raising cattle or livestock, people who eat a primarily vegetarian diet make up for that by eating more of those foods.

Food production (including the use of farming equipment and transportation) is estimated to be responsible for 15 - 30% of GHG emissions in developed countries, and scientists have long advised people to switch to a plant-based diet to benefit the environment and their own health.

The results found that, overall, about 1600 grams of carbon dioxide were emitted for every 100 g of meat produced, which is more than 14X the amount of GHG emitted during the production of fruit, vegetables and starches; and about 2.5X more GHG than generated by fish, pork, poultry and eggs.
However, that gap narrowed when the researchers looked at how many grams of carbon dioxide were emitted per 100 kcal - a measure of food energy. Production of meat still emitted the most GHG, but was now only about 3X the emissions from a comparable amount of energy from fruit and vegetables.

Greens ended up emitting more GHG per calorie than starches, sweets, salty snacks, dairy and fats. It was about equal to the GHG from producing pork, poultry and eggs.

When the researchers looked at what people actually ate on a daily basis to get a certain amount of calories from food, they found that the healthiest diets (those high in fruit, vegetables and fish) emitted as much, if not more, GHG as low-quality diets that were high in sweets and salts.

Huh?! So wait a sec here. The researchers are actually saying a healthy diet is no better, and possibly worse, than an unhealthy diet?! How is this even logical for a non-scientist?! Shouldn't the more appropriate comparison be a healthy meat-based (or mixed) diet versus a healthy vegetarian diet? Have I gone completely sideways again?

The results were meant to be applied to real life situations, but this would mean that people would need to eat about nine pounds of fruit and vegetables daily to make up for a smaller serving of meat--how realistic is that?!

I'm not bashing meat here--I believe humans were meant to eat meat. But I am totally bashing the stupidity of this study, the data manipulation, and the interpretation of the results.

Source: High nutritional quality is not associated with low greenhouse gas emissions in self-selected diets of French adults

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