Going vegan hardly impacts carbon footprint

Illustration of a person showing a display table of vega produce in front of a field and trucks driving past.
Jamie Scott/File

Related Posts

Going vegan has gained in popularity over the years, whether undertaken out of health, ethical or environmental reasons. The city of Berkeley has been at the forefront of plant-based diets and efforts toward ameliorating climate change for many years. In 2013, UC Berkeley announced the Carbon Neutrality Initiative, with a goal for the campus to be carbon neutral by 2025. And in 2018, the city of Berkeley committed to only serving vegan meals in city-owned buildings, facilities and programs once a week.

Regardless of the underlying reason to shift diets, however, there is often misinformation reporting that veganism is the best way for an individual to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; yet many of these reports do not have clear and credible supporting evidence.

A quick internet search can often take you down a rabbit hole of pseudoscience and misleading information, so allow me to break down what truth I have been able to glean. Unfortunately, this may not be pleasant to hear, particularly for those who choose vegan diets for the sole purpose of reducing their carbon footprint.

It should be no secret by now that farming animals contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agriculture industry produces about 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle agriculture emits the majority of animal-based agriculture due to manure and fertilizer, not to mention the amount of land and water required for meat production.

However, agricultural production has become more efficient over the last several decades and meat consumption has in fact decreased — yet greenhouse gas emissions have still increased enough to raise the average U.S. temperatures by 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

A peer review of studies about going vegetarian showed that a diet eliminating meat may reduce an individual’s carbon emissions by approximately four percent. Another study conducted in Sweden reported a decrease of about two percent over a person’s lifetime.

Those numbers may sound appealing when you add the entire vegan and vegetarian population of the world together. However, these statistics ignore several other factors, such as the cost of transportation still required for the production of vegetarian food. The statistics also tend to ignore the fact that, although vegetarian diets may be cheaper than meat diets, the money saved is likely going toward other spending that, in turn, potentially creates more gas emissions, essentially increasing the carbon emissions a person may have saved by eliminating meat from their diet.

Supporting previous findings in Sweden, another study estimated the statistical benefits of a modeled system where animal-derived foods were removed: Only 2.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions were reduced. The study also showed a subsequent decrease in food security and an increase in nutritional deficiency in the sampled population.

Keep in mind that the impact of fruit and vegetable production on climate change is also unclear.

For example, research conducted in the U.K. found that asparagus, which is typically imported from Peru, has the most significant carbon footprint of any vegetable consumed by the country and uses the most land and water compared to other vegetables. Additionally, when some fruits — such as blueberries and strawberries — are not in season, they have to be transported via air to keep up with demand, which can create the same, if not more, carbon emissions than the transportation of poultry.

For those who may be wondering about meat alternatives, which are becoming more popular, the environmental benefits of those are not clear either.

While the carbon emissions produced by meat production, mainly methane, have a more substantial impact on global warming, the carbon dioxide that may be created through developing lab-grown meat persists in the environment and accumulates over time. In the long run, alternative meats that are lab-developed may end up being just as harmful and potentially more costly if the demand calls for high levels of production.

Considering everything said, if a person’s reasoning for endorsing a vegan diet is based on the idea that it will significantly impact greenhouse gas emissions (rather than for ethical or health and intolerance reasoning), it may be time to rethink things.

Perhaps instead, consider switching to a plant-based or flexitarian diet where most of the diet consists of consuming foods primarily from plants, but not necessarily restricting from occasionally consuming small portions of meat.

Following Berkeley’s recent resolution, which expands on the city’s previous attempt to provide vegan meals in city buildings once a week, vegan meals will be provided in jails and city buildings to reduce meat and dairy consumption by 50 percent by 2024. This suggested alternative may be a more sustainable option that may have a similar impact on global warming as a strict vegan diet would.

So go ahead and have that steak every once in a while. There are bigger things to focus on. If we really want to talk about reducing our environmental footprint, let’s focus on the policies that affect agricultural practices and secure cleaner, cost-efficient energy. Placing the blame on individuals and on the diets they choose to consume takes attention away from the necessary policy changes that many people are working toward implementing.

Melyssa Walker Martinez is a public health masters student at San Jose State University.