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Published on February 25th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan

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Which is Better for the Environment, Local or Vegetarian?

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OK, of course, you can go both vegetarian AND local. But for those interested in the nitty gritty details of which really matters more for addressing global warming/climate change and protecting the environment, a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology may have the answers for you.

The study found that the food production process is much more significant environmentally than the transporting of food.

Environmental Footprint from Food Transportation

“We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption,” the authors write.

In total, 11% of the average U.S. household’s environmental footprint from food is due to transport and only 4% is from the food being taken from the producer to the retail market, according to the researchers.

Environmental Footprint from Dietary Choices (i.e. Vegetarian vs Red-Meat-Heavy vs Something in Between)

Yes, you know what’s coming next. The most significant way to green your food choices is by cutting the meat or animal products as much as possible, especially the red meat.

“Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish,” the authors write. “Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than ‘buying local.'”

In the end, the researchers found that cutting the meat and animal products or even just cutting back on the red meat one day per week is more significant than buying all your food from local sources.

Health Tip

An internal cleanse is a great way to show your body you care. By incorporating cleansing fiber with soothing herbs, you can help remove excess waste from the body without drastic changes to your metabolism or diet.

Interesting. I have wondered, and read this before but didn’t read about it in depth. This is the first academic article I’ve seen comparing the two options. It seems pretty clear which path to focus on (if you don’t want to go all out on it yet) if you want to help address global warming and climate change.

Photo Credit: jalb

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.



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  • http://environmentalmentalism.blogspot.com/ mememine69

    LePollution is REAL, unstoppable warming from CO2 “was” NOT!
    If a climate crisis was real, we would be talking about it, not debating it’s existence.
    Scientists have families too. Why are the scientists not marching in the streets and screaming crisis on Oprah and CNN?
    Why do the thousands of consensus scientists always out number the protesters?
    Why did Obama not say “climate change” or “EPA” in his state of the union in Feb.2011?
    The scientists say we humans are contributing less CO2 thanks to the world economy yet global CO2 levels continue to rise? Just like the “scientists” who produced cruise missiles, cancer causing chemicals, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, cluster bombs, strip mining technology, Y2K, Y2Kyoto, deep sea drilling technology and now climate change.
    Do you believe the death warrant for the planet enough to look your very own children in the eyes and tell them in vague and deceptive language that they will die an unspeakable CO2 death?
    Doesn’t the fact that climate science is so political, show that it’s ……political?
    If you still think voters will vote yes to taxing the air to make the weather colder, you are the new denier.
    System change, not climate changeave a Reply

  • Michael R.

    Yes, this is what I advocate for folks (like myself) who actually enjoy their food (especially meats and animal products): try going meatless once or twice a week.

    What doesn’t get mentioned here, however, is the agricultural contribution to global warming from the heavy use of nitrogen-rich, petro-chemical fertilizers. Apart from the extraction AND production process of fertilizers, their use contributes to nitrogen-oxide (NOx) compounds which form nitrous oxide aerosols.

    How is this quantity calculated and integrated into these percentage estimates of household carbon emissions?

    • http://www.zacharyshahan.com Zach

      Great additional points, Michael. I’m not sure of the methodology used, but the article linked above should contain such info.

      & you are right, of course, things do get really complicated. :D

    • http://Web LMS

      Michael,

      As noted in this article, the linked study was looking at carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) and not just carbon emissions. The following paragraph from the study explains how total CO2e was calculated for food production:

      “Within food production, which totaled 6.8 t CO2e/household-yr, 3.0 t CO2e(44%) were due to CO2 emissions, with 1.6 t (23%) due to methane, 2.1 t (32%) due to nitrous oxide, and 0.1 t (1%) due to HFCs and other industrial gases. Thus, a majority of food’s climate impact is due to non-CO2 greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, mainly due to nitrogen fertilizer application, other soil management techniques, and manure management, are prevalent in all food groups but especially in animal-based groups due to the inefficient transformation of plant energy into animal-based energy. Methane (CH4) emissions are mainly due to enteric fermentation in ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats) and manure management, and are thus concentrated in the red meat and dairy categories.”

      As you see here, the authors acknowledge that the majority of food’s climate impact is due to non-CO2 gases, but note that nitrous oxide emissions are still more prevalent in the animal-based food sources.

  • Michael R.

    Oh, forgot to mention that these N2O compounds deplete ozone, which of course allows more input of solar particles, increasing radiative forcing, global warming, etc….the point being that carbon alone is not the sole calculator and determiner of global warming, and each of us, in our consumption of mass agricultural produce, contributes to this….second point being that it gets really complicated once you REALLY look at the factors and contributions.

  • http://Web Toodloo

    The study mentioned in this blog post is very important and was awarded the prestigious “Environmental Policy Paper of the Year Award”.

    “Locavorism” seems to be more closely aligned with a romanticized notion of pastoral life than it is with true environmentalism. I hope more lacovores commit to reducing or eliminating their consumption of meat and dairy.

    • http://www.zacharyshahan.com Zach

      Toodloo, thanks for the extra note. didn’t know that

  • http://Web Siggi.

    Hi, Thanks for the article and for sharing your knowledge.
    I live in Iceland and been a pescetarian for 2 years. I tried being 100% vegan for almost a month. But due to health reasons, fast metabolism and other factors I have mainly been pescetarian, but avoid dairy products over the summer months to reduce the effects of pollen allergies.
    My Question: Is my carbon footprint reduced more if I eat more local animal and vegetables or if I go totally vegan and buy more food that has been flown here from overseas?
    This is because I live on an island and I can only get foods like soy,rice milk, avocados, nuts, all fruits except tomatoes from overseas. I can get locally grown vegetables like potatoes, cucumber, broccoli and many other greens here in Iceland but not the whole year round.
    How should I go about this. Is it maybe better(carbonwise) to avoid dairy products all together because of the manure. And maybe eat more eggs or sheep. Sheep is also a very big factor in Iceland. Its such a big pride factor for old icelanders that people have actually rolled their eyes at me for not eating sheep.
    This is a fascinating subject to research.

    • http://importantmedia.org/members/zshahan/ Zachary Shahan

      Siggi, it seems like the overall conclusion was that going vegetarian/vegan is much more considerable than eating local. But I’m sure this topic warrants a lot more research and location-specific research is important. Not sure in your case :D I guess you have to go with what makes the most sense to you & works. Clearly, though, there is a big environmental benefit to cutting th meat & dairy.

  • http://orangeandginger.blogspot.com Megan

    This is probably easy enough for me to say, because I’m vegan, but I don’t think it would hurt for people to have a better go at both of them. There’s no need to pit local eating against vegetarian; they’re both a step in the right direction. Of course I think it would be better if everyone ate vegetarian, but that doesn’t change the fact that eating local foods is a more sustainable option for those who have access to local products.

    • http://www.zacharyshahan.com Zach

      Good points, of course. I think it is still interesting & useful to know how they compare, though. There is a considerable difference in how they affect the environment

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