Food for Thought



– Get comfy guys, cause this is a long one-

A few months ago, I was at a shoot and the interview was about food (obvies, my favorite subject). The interviewer asked me, “What is a daily act people can do to make the planet healthier and society better?” I answered that I believed buying seasonal foods from local farmers markets makes a major difference (I still stand by that). I also added that I didn’t think being a vegan would save the world because food systems are incredibly complicated and hardly anything is linear. As a quick example, soybean production (tofu) is a major contributor to deforestation in the Amazon (as I’m sure you know deforestation = horrible for emissions/the Planet/biodiversity/etc., etc.) Just as I said that, the photographer walked by and interrupted that soy was not the issue and that being a vegetarian (like him) is the best thing you can do for the environment. I pushed back. I told him that I used to be a vegetarian for the same reason (true fact), but my graduate studies told me a different story. Really, being a local/seasonal vegetarian is the best thing you can do for the planet. Buying tropical fruits and vegetables in the middle of winter in NYC, for example, is not doing anyone (including the Planet) any favors. I also argued that, depending on your climate zone and the time of year, a steak from a small, local, organic farm would be a better choice as far as emissions. All of this got published, by the way…  [peekaboo_content]

Well, I just wanna issue a BIG FAT APOLOGY to Matthew Stone (photographer) and eat a big piece of HUMBLE PIE, cause YOU WERE RIGHT and I was wrong. An EPIC-Oxford cohort study released in July (2014) made it clear and official that vegetarian/vegan diets are the most environmentally friendly diets (Though, I still have a few questions that I’ll get to later…)

In my defense, when I studied this at the London School of Economics things were not so clear. When I was reading up on this, there was a lot of theory, counter theory, and counter-counter theory. I used to leave the library with my head spinning, not knowing what the hell to believe, and would just go home and eat my feelings (usually in the form of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut Bars).

What’s different about the EPIC-Oxford study? Well, as far as I know, it’s the first major empirical study on diets as related to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This means that researchers actually tracked, measured, and analyzed what subjects ate and tallied up all the corresponding GHG emissions. Oh, and the researchers surveyed the diets of about 55,504 meat eaters, pescatarians (vegetarian diet + fish), vegetarians, and vegans. (Can you imagine the insane amount of data and number crunching? It makes my head spin just thinking about it!!) The question they aimed to answer is “What constitutes a healthy, sustainable diet?” Here are the Cliff Notes of what they found:

  • The majority of emissions related to food come from the agricultural stage.
  • Technology could help decrease emissions to some extent, but it really comes down to changes in consumption patterns i.e. what/how we eat.
  • An average 2,000 calorie meat diet had 2.5 times as many emissions as an average 2,000 calorie vegan diet.

o   Shifting your diet from HIGH MEAT > LOW MEAT would reduce an individual’s footprint by 920kgCO2/year.

o   Shifting your diet from HIGH MEAT > VEGETARIAN would reduce carbon footprint by 1,230kgCO2/year

o   And shifting your diet from HIGH MEAT > VEGAN would reduce by 1,560kggCO2/year.

o   Surprisingly, pescatarian diets had only slightly more emissions as a vegetarian diet (about 2.5% difference)

What the hell does a figure like1,560kgCO2 mean anyway?  Well….

•  A person traveling from London to NY has a carbon footprint of 960kg/CO2e.

• A family running a 10 year old small, family car for 6,000 miles has a carbon footprint of 2,440kgCO2e.[1]

So, if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, take a minute to pat yourself on the back. No really, go ahead and take a minute. We’ll wait…………..

Now, if you’re like me, i.e. not a vegetarian (and definitely not a vegan), this study was tough to read. Also consider the fact that the study defines “high meat diet” as more than 3.5 ounces per day. 3.5 OUNCES = ONE CHICKEN BREAST (I’m repeatedly banging my forehead right on the table right now). SIGHHHHH and UGGGHHHHHHHHH.

OK, soooooo with this in mind, I am personally making a commitment to eat WAY less meat, with an aim to go fully vegetarian (with an eye on nutrition, of course). Additionally, from now on I will also make a real effort to ensure that Impatient Foodie has more vegetarian (and vegan) recipes than meat based ones.  And yes, for the record, I tried being vegan awhile back and it was a bad experience on many levels (another story for another time).

So here’s my opinion on this: I am willing to accept these findings and happy to adjust my eating habits/lifestyle, but I am also unclear on the global implications of this study. Can a “prescription” of a vegetarian/vegan diet be the case for every single person in the world, regardless of geographical location/climate zone? Grad school trained me to be wary of “global” thinking and “silver bullets” and I smell a hint of that here. As Laura B. DeLind has written, “one size, one solution, one set of prescriptions (does) not, (cannot), fit all.”

And OK, I understand that the majority of food emissions come from the agricultural phase, but it seems weird to me that if I buy and eat a bunch of vegetables imported from Israel, South America, and Africa in the middle of winter I am having less of a footprint than if I eat a steak from a small scale, organic meat farm less than 100 miles away from NYC.  I wonder if organic, small-scale meat farms with local distribution were assessed in this study? Or maybe the focus was on large scale, factory farm operations and their impacts?

The reason I fret about shipping around vegetables and fruits is that they are mostly made of water (80%-95% of fruits and veg are water). As Joan Dye Gussow said in her book This Organic Life (2002) “…the high water content of (fruits and vegetables) and their tendency to rot if they get warm means we are, in effect, burning lots of petroleum to ship cold water around.”

So, to be clear, I still stand by what I said in my interview: Eating local and seasonal fruits and vegetables (organic whenever possible) has a huge, positive impact.  What is also clear is that meat based diets are heavily “emissioned” (I just made up that term – BOOM!) However, this study showed that eating LESS meat can also have a significant impact, if you feel you cannot give meat up all together. So another way forward is to eat a lot less meat and a lot more seasonal/local vegetables, fruits, grains, etc. When you do eat meat, consider enjoying it as a side dish rather than as a main course! If meat was considered a side dish for everyone, I wonder what impact that would have?! Any single animal would be able to feed many more people. Enjoying meat as a side dish is actually a suggestion my mom came up with awhile back and I think it’s kinda genius, especially in light of this study. As usual the lady is ahead of her time..

So basically, I’m happy to make a change, but wary of any silver bullet solution and have some questions/reservations. But, again, I will make a real effort to reduce my meat consumption. If anyone has any answers to my questions, please post them in the comments section! I’d love to start a discussion about this 🙂 Complicated and important stuff! [/peekaboo_content] [peekaboo]Content [/peekaboo]

[1] Both of these examples are taken from the EPIC-Oxford Study 

Join the conversation

  • Beth from Seattle

    Interesting. I would have agreed with your original argument (and would have said that supporting the local farmers helps the local economy). I look forward to seeing more vegetable based recipes on this site, my youngest daughter refuses to eat meat and I have been happily exploring quinoa, garbanzo beans, almonds, and all sorts of foods with high protein levels. I just made a delicious dish with quinoa, black beans, brown rice, almond slivers, and landed up with garden tomatoes, green onions, broccoli, and roasted eggplant. She ate her whole plate.

    • Hey Beth, Thanks for taking the time to read it! I am making a big effort to learn more vegetarian/vegan recipes 🙂 Last night I took a vegan Ethiopian cooking class which had really interesting spices and flavor combinations. Please share your recipes here too! The dish you made for your youngest sounds great!

  • Dear Elettra, I just found your blog and I really enjoy it! Like you I have tried to be vegan and vegetarian and these diets don’t work very well for me. I need to eat seafood and white meat every now and then. I have noticed, though, that eating red meat has some very clear negative effects on me and and hubby. With that in mind I buy my fruit and veggies from the farmers’ market and eat a seasonal diet. I also take public transportation as much as possible. Does this make a difference? I don’t know by the size of the Suburbans I see parked on NYC streets. But if we all do what we can and talk about this topic, maybe strenght will be in the numbers.

    • Hi Lady Lemonade!
      Thanks for reading the blog and posting a comment 🙂 I definitely think there is strength in numbers and how/where/when you chose to spend your money absolutely makes a difference. I know looking around the streets of NYC with passing Suburbans and Hummers can make you wonder, but take comfort in the fact that sales for organic food are on the rise and that the number of farmers markets listed in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory doubled from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 this year. Keep doing what you’re doing and try to ignore the Suburbans 😉

  • RandomCommenter7

    Interesting post. I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, damn I like a juicy steak too much, but I really try to reduce my meat consumption as much as possible. I also only try and buy seasonal fruit and veg, i.e. no strawberries in December (dunno why people buy them, they taste horrid), but it doesn’t always work.

    I downloaded the article, and will have a proper look at it, but it seems that they did not take into account small, local farms. I currently live in Italy and on occasions when I do get meat I make sure to buy Italian meat (Chianina, omg). Surely, as you said, that’s better than having my bananas shipped over from South America? I guess the problem is that one study cannot take all these different aspects into account. The other possible methodological problem with taking small farms into account that they could only smaller case studies, and they have their own drawbacks too.

    I’m guessing the best we could all do is to reduce our meat consumption and learn how to enjoy the seasons!

    • Hi there! So sorry for my delay with this! I do address the very same question in the post. I think that small, local farms were probably not taken into account, but the implications of this study with regard to meat and emissions did really shock me. Thanks for reading a long post! 🙂 EW

  • Julie Hershkowitz

    New to your Blog! Loving it!!! What are your thoughts about frozen fruits/veg?

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