climate change food

Local food vs eating less meat

A simple observation for you today. When thinking about reducing emissions from food, one of the most high profile concerns is food miles. A lot of food travels a long way to get to us, and all of that adds to its total carbon footprint. Eating more local food, and more in line with the seasons, can reduce the impact of our diets.

It’s a good thing to do, but there is a much more useful intervention that will make a much bigger difference. Here’s a graph showing the breakdown of global greenhouse gases from food production, courtesy of Our World in Data.

Eating locally produced food can help to tackle those transport emissions, but that’s only a small chunk of the overall problem. Even if you could eat 100% local, it would have less impact than choosing a vegan diet for just one day a week.

Eating less meat makes a difference across land use, livestock farming and crops grown for food. Even a small reduction in meat consumption can make a considerable difference. If you go entirely vegan, it will halve your footprint.

This is also worth bearing in mind when you hear people undermining vegan diets by complaining about specialist foods imported from around the world. Yes, that may sometimes happen, and for some vegans the transport component of their diet may go up. But the emissions cuts elsewhere will more than make up for that.

I often get asked what simple steps people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. The truth is that beyond some obvious things that everybody already knows, there aren’t many simple steps. Most of the ones that are simple won’t make much difference, and the ones that make a difference aren’t simple. This is an exception. Anyone can choose to eat less meat. It will be a meaningful step and you can start today.

More on meat

Not all meat is created equal

Just before Christmas, this unfortunate advert appeared on the side of buses in London: I can immediately think of a dozen good reasons why you might eat a turkey and not your own dog, which makes it a bit of a rhetorical failure. And even if you agree and wouldn’t eat a turkey, that’s an […]

The footprint of animal based foods

I’ve featured these sorts of images before, but Carbon Brief’s new interactive article on the footprint of different foods is an instructive summary of climate friendly eating. One again the vastly disproportionate impact of beef is obvious. If you want to do one thing to immediately reduce your carbon emissions, stop eating beef. You can […]

Four aspects of food justice

I’ve been reading a book called Generation Share this week, all about the people behind the sharing economy. It’s almost entirely in their own words, and I particularly liked a short profile of Malik Yakitini. He’s a city farmer, food justice campaigner and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Food justice isn’t […]

12 comments

  1. I’m afraid this is yet another ‘simple step’ that is anything but simple, but is in fact more nuanced than most changes ordinary people can make. Once you look into it, and particularly if any of the majority urban dwellers that consume and promote plant-based diets were to, god forbid, produce a fraction of their caloric intake the following facts would overshadow their simplistic claims:

    1. There’s an enormous difference between consuming beef and pastured poultry, and then there are several levels of nuance in between. ‘All meat is equal’ is an oversimplified term and you might as well drop it if you expect to be taken seriously.
    2. Emissions are not our only big problem. Biodiversity loss and topsoil erosion are right up there, and if you’re interested in taking action to make a difference, that action needs to encompass all of the above.
    3. There are ways that meat production (including beef) can have less impact on the above issues than imported soy, avocado, palm and coconut oil, tropical fruits and nuts, etc. Do take a look into the work of Richard Perkins and Joel Salatin.

    Dropping meat is another feel-good half-measure that does little more than help urban people in developed countries sleep at night as our global civilization slides down the gutters of history. Sadly, as a nutritionist I am fully aware of people who have damaged their health, and that of their children, with overzealous adherence to vegan diets. Yes, it is possible to be healthy and never eat meat, but the fact that so many people still get it wrong speaks volumes about the practical implications of taking this ‘simple step’.

      1. I’m a nutritionist, not a medical dietitian, which means I deal with the diets of healthy people and cannot give advice on improving health, only for improving athletic performance. Which is why I prefer not to give direct diet advice on this topic. But do the research (outside of vegan blogs) and don’t dismiss the need for protein and micronutrients. Here’s a decent starting point vitamins and minerals – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans

        The fact that for the majority of cases of vegan diets you need add synthetic supplements to stay healthy speaks a lot for the sustainability of this diet. Also, if we have an interest in procreating our race – https://www.brusselstimes.com/news/belgium-all-news/science/56815/a-vegan-diet-can-be-bad-for-children-says-royal-academy-of-medicine/

        Again, the deeper you look, the less ‘simple’ this step appears.

        1. I agree with this entirely – vegan diets are not simple, and are very difficult if not impossible to do without some rather artificial additives. This is why I advocate eating less meat, not veganism.

    1. Hi Alek303, don’t most nutritionists say diets resembling the ‘mediterranean diet’ show good outcomes? Or indeed a large proportion of traditioal diets worldwide, which all have in common a variety of vegetables, pulses etc, but generally much LESS (the article never advocated zero) meat? What direction of movement (if any??) are you trying to advocate for here? I don’t think us urbanised folk can carry on just the same can we?

      I do think it’s important to recognise that average statistics conceal a very high variability here (e.g. Poore & Nemecek 2018, and there’s a nice infographic halfway down this BBC article):
      https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:b0b53649-5e93-4415-bf07-6b0b1227172f
      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46459714
      But some underlying things seem clear: it’s very hard to avoid high footprints with most meats, especially beef and lamb, and although regenerative farming along the lines of Perkins and Salatin’s outfits seems promising, it’s going to take a while at least to scale this up to being universal, and what are we to do meantime?

      So, isn’t moving to a more mediterranean diet a good start, while we continue to do our homework on the precise provenance and methods of the sources we buy from?

      As we all try to find wiser paths in a complex and difficult situation, I think it will take no little humility, and careful listening to understand what others are trying to say

      1. I think Mediterranean *anything* is too broad a term as it encompasses the lives of millions of peoples with diverse habits and contexts, especially when ti comes to diet.

        If there is an overall position I am advocating then it’s this – if we are to have a shot, the we need to drastically and immediately start moving away from the role of consumers to the roles of producers in all aspects of our lives: energy, transport, food, education, etc. which inevitably means more local on all fronts. This blog has tons of articles on doing all of the above, and I’m being loud in the comment section with the purpose of constructive criticism.

        Specifically regarding food, this means planting fruit and nut trees, tending veggie gardens and adding chickens wherever possible (private and public land), as well as acting against laws that prohibit any of the above. I know this is a hard pill to swallow for most people who would rather just change their purchasing habits and buy their solutions instead, but this is our current predicament since we are past the point of easy and quick fixes.

        1. yes I really like those good positive proposals. We surely should be doing much more of those. But there’s also complexity to grapple with here too. One of those is on people preferring to ‘just change their purchasing habits’: how true that is, what drives it if so, and what can be done to improve. Many links into the worlds of marketing, advertising, popular culture, philosphies and ideologies etc. Another really hard issue is land reform. Most of us only have access to ‘postage stamps’ of land, and rearing chickens on that will make us 99% vegan anyway!

          1. Agreed, and I have planted fruit and nut trees myself, in my small garden and beyond. I help to run Edible Luton, which is all about encouraging people to grow more of their own, including public growing spaces in urban areas. And I’m getting chickens for my birthday.

    2. Alek, you’ll notice the opening line of this post is “a simple observation”, not “a complete guide to a sustainable diet”. And I’ve specifically written about eating less meat, not going vegan.

      This blog is an ongoing conversation. Previous posts have mentioned the differences between meats, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and much of the nuance you’re looking for.
      https://earthbound.report/tag/meat/

  2. I’m rather tired of these unnuanced takes on what we eat, and largely agree with alex303 above – we don’t have to force everyone to be vegan (and if you try, you ignore the importance of livestock in the Global South).
    But even more important is that these fierce debates about vegan vs meat deflect attention form the most crucial factor of all: even OurWorldInData’s figures will show you that 73% of greenhouse gas emissions emanate from energy use in transport, electricity and heat. We have to tackle a number of fronts at the same time, of course, and reducing emissions from agriculture (for example, by reducing fossil-fuel based fertiliser use in monocropping, or by reducing confined animal operations) and managing waste better will all count. But as long as we use fossil fuels to create energy, we have no hope of limiting climate change.

    1. You’ll need to point out where I my post I suggests that we ‘force everyone to be vegan’.

      This isn’t a post about ‘vegan vs meat’. It’s a post about the amount of attention given to food miles vs the environmental benefits of less meat.

      For more on transport, heat and electricity, see other posts on the blog – you’ll find thousands to choose from.

  3. My not-simple wish is that we go back to the day when each household has a small backyard where they could grow some vegetables and perhaps raise some poultry. Very local, no food miles, organic, and I’d say less consumption (the inconvenience of butchering a chicken every few days!). But land is mostly in the hands of the few (especially in in western countries), and industrial farming thrives (include emissions, food miles from imports) to satisfy our ever growing appetites as well as addiction to processed food.

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