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No, a Vegetarian Diet Is Not Environmentally Worse Than Bacon

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]cientific America wrote an article that claimed “Bacon lovers of the world, rejoice! Or at the least take solace that your beloved pork belly may be better for the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than the lettuce that accompanies it on the classic BLT.” But is this true?

Actually, not even close. The “study” in question, which is hiding behind a paywall, shows no vegetarian diet at all. The diet they show actually includes both dairy, as well as fish. Fish is not vegetarian. They focused on USDA recommendations.

“Shifting to dietary Scenario 3, which accounts for both reduced Caloric intake and a shift to the USDA recommended food mix, increases energy use by 38 %, blue water footprint by 10 %, and GHG emissions by 6 %.”

This doesn’t even make sense, taking into account that lowering meat intake also lowers crop intake. For instance, look at the example of corn:

chart 22

The amount used for animal feed far outweighs the small amount of corn that actually makes it in our stores. And if you also include a popular vegan staple: “Just over 70 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States are used for animal feed, with poultry being the number one livestock sector consuming soybeans, followed by hogs, dairy, beef and aquaculture.”

If you eliminate the need for animals, you as a result eliminate the need for all of that excess crop usage. Also, over 2.14 billion gallons of water a day goes into animal agriculture. On average about 9.1 billion animals are slaughtered every year for consumption, so for every 9.1 billion animals, meaning on average, which individual animal consumes 81 gallons of water per year. Compared to 126 billion gallons of water for crop agriculture, which means 418 gallons of water per ACRE of crops, which on a crop-by crop basis, is just a couple of gallons per Bushel, pound, etc. Much less for each individual crop.

So no, eating lettuce is not worse for the environment than eating meat.

But the study’s founder claims in an interview:

“Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon, Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery, and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken.”

On a Calorie by Calorie basis, sure, you can claim that extremely low calorie foods, like Lettuce, Celery, and Eggplant, which have 14, 25, and 16 Calories per 100 grams respectively, look bad when compared to methane producing pork and chicken, sure. But that also ignores a few things: Nutrient content, and the fact that Vegetarians usually eat much higher calorie-dense foods.

On a Calorie for Calorie basis, eating pork might look better than eating Romaine lettuce, because pork is calorie-dense at 242 Calories per 100 grams. But Nutrition-wise, Calorie-for Calorie, Romaine Lettuce is actually more nutritious than pork.

Also, if you remember that Vegetarians eat higher calorie foods such as Grains, Beans, Nuts, Seeds, Lentils, Soybeans, and Seitan, in place of meat, instead of simply loading up on eggplant, the argument just simply shatters. A good quote actually comes from Slate:

First: Obviously, we are not replacing the meat in our diet with lettuce. Who would do that? Instead, we’re eating other protein- and nutrient-dense foods, such as grains, beans, seeds, nuts, tofu and, in my case, the occasional delicacy of chik’n nuggets. Now, I’m not saying tofu is perfect—while soy beans themselves are a highly efficient source of protein, tofu relies on many different production methods, so it’s hard to know how it stacks up. I’m saying that this study sets up a false comparison. If you took the time to actually look at a vegetarian diet, you’d think twice before suggesting that vegetarians are replacing animal protein with humongous piles of salad.

And that alone would not counteract that Vegans and vegetarians are known to be thinner, have lower rates of many diseases, as well as Vegans eating about 700 Calories less than the average carnist. Since Obesity is connected with higher Greenhouse Gas emission rate, higher food intake, and high consumption of foods that release the most potent of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere (Methane), it makes no sense that a vegetarian or vegan diet would be worse for the environment just because it contains more nutrient-rich but low-caloric foods.

The study in question that many news articles claim that the Carcinogen bacon must be good because calorie-per-calorie it produces less carbon emissions, is simply Lying With Statistics. This study also fails to take into account the environmental impacts of animal waste by-products in runoff, as well as the fact that a huge chunk of crop agriculture is used directly to feed animals that people eat. As well as the deforestation that occurs as a result of making room for this loop, along with various other issues. Such as the fact that every single case of foodbourne-illnesses such as Salmonella being directly linked to some kind of animal.

So no, being vegetarian or vegan, or eating a plant-based diet, is NOT more environmentally damaging than eating tons of animal byproducts. So those news articles that claim “In your face, vegans! Study finds lettuce is “three times worse than bacon”, vegetarian diets bad for environment” can suck it.