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Is a vegetarian diet really better for

the environment? Science takes


aim at the conventional wisdom.
Is that salad really good for the
environment? (Photo by Renee Comet
for the Washington Post)

The idea that being vegetarian is better


for the environment has, over the last
forty years, become a piece of
conventional wisdom.

Its popular rise began in 1971 with the


publication of the surprise best-seller
Diet for a Small Planet and then spread far and wide: earlier this year it made
its way into a key government report for recommendations for the American
diet.

As that report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee put it:
Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher
in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts,
and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods ...is associated with lesser
environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet.

This notion isnt, however, something that scientists have agreed on, and some
new research undermines the longstanding idea.

A paper from Carnegie Mellon University researchers published this week


finds that the diets recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,
which include more fruits and vegetables and less meat, exacts a greater
environmental toll than the typical American diet. Shifting to the diets
recommended by Dietary Guidelines for American would increase energy use
by 38 percent, water use by ten percent and greenhouse gas emissions by six
percent, according to the paper.

We were very surprised by our results, said Paul Fischbeck, professor of


engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Its not what we
set out to do - in fact, we expected the exact opposite.

The findings on the government-recommended diet, which the researchers


described as perhaps counterintuitive, stem from the fact that the healthy
diet includes larger amounts of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and fish,
which have relatively large environmental impacts when compared to some
foods in our current diet such as foods with added sugars.

You cant just assume that a vegetarian diet will reduce your carbon footprint,
which is what people think, Fischbeck said.
The Carnegie Mellon paper was funded by the Colcom Foundation and the
Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research at Carnegie
Mellon University.

While the research builds on previous work that likewise undermines the
conventional wisdom, the debate over the environmental virtues of
vegetarianism are unlikely to subside any time soon.

For one thing, the vegetarians have a point: scientists on both sides have
concurred that eating beef - though not other meats - has daunting
environmental impacts.

Because of the amount of grain and land used to produce a pound of beef, as
well as the volume of methane the animals produce, the nations intake of beef
has significant environmental ramifications, particularly in terms of
greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the environmental impacts from beef
production dwarf those of other animal foods such as dairy products, pork and
poultry.

The key conclusion - that beef production demands about one order of
magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories - is robust,
according to a paper last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, six other studies, all cited by the federal
committee providing expert advice to Dietary Guidelines for Americans,
indicated that diets including less meat are better for the environment. To take
but one example, Cornell University researchers reported in the American
Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2003 that meat-based food system requires
more energy, land, and water resources than the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
On the other hand, other papers echo the findings from Carnegie Mellon,
suggesting that diets with less meat are no guarantee of environmental
benefits. For example, a 2013 paper published by French researchers in the
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that some diets containing large
amounts of plant-based foods had the highest levels of greenhouse gas
emissions.

Our results therefore seem to contradict the widely accepted view that diets
that are good for health are also good for the planet, they reported.
So how do the scientists reach such different conclusions?
The reasons, it turns out, are illuminating.

To oversimplify somewhat, research of this type consists of adding up the


amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental costs
estimated to come from the production, transportation and marketing of
individual foods included in a diet. For example, in the Carnegie Mellon
research, the scientists collected estimates of the water use, energy use, and
the greenhouse gas emissions for scores of individual foods, and then added
up the environmental impacts incurred by various diets.

One of the reasons that the studies vary is that the scientists made different
assumptions about the foods involved in each diet studied - and this turns out
to be critical. The environmental impacts of individual foods vary
tremendously (see chart below), and consequently, the results of these papers
shift dramatically depending on the particular vegetarian or meat-eating
menu.
Some of the environmental impacts of individual foods are quite strikingly
opposite what you might guess: On a per calorie basis, producing lettuce
creates nearly as much greenhouse gas emissions as does beef, according to
the CMU research; in fact, lettuce generates roughly three times what pork
does. Fresh fish, too, is associated with surprisingly high levels of greenhouse
gas emissions.

As a result of the varying impacts among foods, small changes in the diet to be
analyzed can have large impacts on the results: for example, cutting out pork
and eating more lettuce, for example, might be good for you but it will take a
higher toll from the environment.

Another important reason for the conflicting findings is that some of the
research only considers the environmental costs of what people actually eat.
But a significant percentage of any given food is wasted, and in order to get a
complete tally, the environmental costs of producing the wasted food also
ought to be included. Including food waste tends to raise the environmental
costs of fruits and vegetables because more of them tend to be wasted:
According to Fischbeck and colleague Michelle Tom, while about 40 percent
or more of fruit goes to waste, only about 33 percent of meat does.

The data on the environmental effects of the food supply, moreover, can be
extremely complicated to measure, vary from place to place, and are a subject
of significant scientific uncertainty. But for all the debate over the issue, and
the complexity of data, a couple of nuggets seem clear.

First, while it might be nice to think that whats good for you is also good for
the planet, its not necessarily the case. To take just one example that may
please some people: Ingredients associated with junk foods, such as added
sugars and saturated fats, have lower environmental impacts, according to the
CMU estimates.

Second, the choices you make for dinner do have environmental


consequences. Theyre just not as simple as you might think.

Cornell Notes
Sign Posts & why Quoted (or paraphrased) Material

Numbers and stats: show the about 40 percent or more of fruit goes to
difference in food wasted.
19
waste, only about 33 percent of meat does.
17 a significant percentage of any given food is
Used this to show the difference wasted
between the two products and
their impacts. lettuce generates roughly three times what
pork does

Quoted words: this paragraph the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee put
used a lot of quoted words from
different scientist because every it: Consistent evidence indicates that, in
single scientist found different general, a dietary pattern that is higher in
findings on their theory. plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits,
3
I included this quote from the whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and
paragraph because it was my lower in animal-based foods ...is associated
favorite. I started my whole
thinking on if going vegetarian
with lesser environmental impact than is the
was really better for the current average U.S. diet.
environment.

Absolute or extreme language: Americans, which include more fruits and


Words like greater or lesser are
swarming this paragraph.
vegetables and less meat, exacts a greater
5 environmental toll
16 The environmental impacts of individual
And words like tremendously are
used throughout this article to foods vary tremendously
show the great difference
between these findings.

Word Gaps: since this is a very meat-based food system requires more
scientific article they used many
words that i then had to clarify a
energy, land, and water resources than the
little. The main one being lacto- lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
ovo vegetarian
13
This was also a quoted
sentence.

SUMMARY
It has become common today to think that being a vegetarian will be
healthier for the planted because you only eat greens and food that's good for
the earth. But is it really? Good for the earth I mean, do we really know if
eating better even affects the environment? The dietary guidelines advisory
committee stated that a diet with more fruits and vegetables have a lesser
impact on the environment. This comes into play a lot. Different scientist
saying what is greater or what is worse for the environment. When truth is
neither might have an impact.