The Hidden Meat of the Food Miles Debate | Seventh Generation
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The Hidden Meat of the Food Miles Debate

Author: the Inkslinger

CowThere’s a lot of carbon consciousness emerging. And it’s a happy thing. People everywhere are becoming aware of how daily life contributes to the climate crisis and how we can lower these impacts. One of the most popular is to choose local foods as a way to cut down on the “food miles” our meals travel from field to plate and the carbon emissions that travel creates. A new study, however, points out an overlooked truth in this debate: When it comes to global warming, how far our food travels isn’t as important as what that food is in the first place.

This study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University finds that we can have a much bigger impact on climate change by concentrating on eating less red meat and dairy products rather than focusing on eating foods produced close to home. That’s because when we add up all the climate-related effects food creates, transportation accounts for only about 11% of the average household’s food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while the methods used to produce that food are responsible for 83% of the total.

Here’s how food production-related GHG emissions break down:

  • Red Meat is responsible for 30% of our national food supply’s total GHG emissions
  • Dairy products are responsible for 18%
  • Cereals & Carbs are responsible for 11%
  • Fruits & vegetables are responsible for 11%
  • Chicken, Fish & Eggs are responsible for 10%
  • Other is responsible for 9%
  • Beverages are responsible for 6%
  • And Oils, Sweets & Condiments are responsible for 6%

With these numbers in mind, the study finds that replacing red meat and dairy products with chicken, fish, or eggs for just one day a week would be like driving 760 miles less each year. But switching to a 100% vegetable diet for just one day per week would be the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles less per year. By comparison, adopting a 100% local diet would produce the carbon savings of driving 1,000 miles less per year.

That said, this research certainly isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t buy local. As I’ve pointed out before, buying local food has lots of other benefits besides those related to global warming. But from a purely climate change perspective, it’s not the only attribute or even the most important one our food can have. As always, the ultimate solution is composed of many different smaller answers. We can do a lot by eating local. But we can do even more by choosing fruits and veggies over red meat and picking fish instead of dairy. Make those kinds of choices with local food sources and we’ll do more still and have, I would think, a serious recipe for keeping cool in the kitchen.

photo: Keven Law


hrabieh picture
Here is an example of where having livestock saves lives...They are not just emitters of carbon dioxide and methane... Simply a response to blanket statements about livestock's impacts on the planet... Blanket statements, though nice sounding, don't seem to solve issues, they perpetuate myths, much like over-exaggerated analogies... One can just as easily make bold statements such as "more people on the planet have been and will continue to die as a direct cause of violence/war/etc. ie. man dying at the hand of man, than any natural disaster till now or in the future including global warming" ergo, should we get rid of man? Clearly not. Compassion among people and people/animal will lead to the results we wish for. Check out a great book by Paul Hawken called Blessed Unrest. Environmental issues are inextricably tied to social can't just fix the world with carbon reduction alone. That would be the equivalence of allopathic medicine treating the symptoms and not the causes while treating the body as an enemy and not an ally...
davygirl picture
In response to toenopaw's question about what counts as "other" - this may include pork and wild game. I'm so glad this discussion has acknowledged the importance of the method used to produce food. If we really wanted to eliminate our environmental impact related to our food choices, we would end up not eating at all. Let's be reasonable and understand that organic farming is one of many solutions to our growing ecological concerns. When combined with eating local, this is an awesome combination to make our food consumption sustainable for the environment as well as our economy.
Seventh Generation VT picture
Seventh Generation VT
05/20/08 Mark Bittman compares the impact of eating meat to the threat of nuclear war -- "only once before has the fate of individual people and the fate of all of humanity been so intertwined." "It's a holocaust of a different kind and hiding under our desks isn't going to help." "After energy production, livestock is the second highest contributor to atmosphere altering gasses. Nearly 1/5 of all greenhouse gas is generated by livestock production, more than transportation." "Livestock is also one of the biggest culprits in land degradation, air and water pollution, water shortages, and loss of biodiversity."
hrabieh picture
I'm being facetious but researchers who publish these report and make dietary recommendations are neither qualified to make them or are looking at this issue holistically and consciously. As member zjraby mentioned not all beef is produced the same yet these studies bundle every form of agriculture together. We clearly must look at our individual and collective eating habits, and clearly a diet low in animal meat is ideal but reduction in CO2 is not a reason to alter one's eating habits. When individuals make a conscious decision as to the kinds of food they buy, they individually and collectively will bring about the positive change we all seek in this world. The beef that we want so badly to remove from the market and from our diets is not the humanely grown organic grass fed beef, it is the meat that is produced to be used by fast food chains such as McDonald, Burger King and grocery stores such as Safeway and Walmart. That is not good for our physical/mental health or our environment. I can imagine in the near future seeing research papers with silly titles such as this: - "You can keep driving your hummer if you reduce your beer and carbonated soda intake and switching to fruit juices" - "Naturaly fermented products such as sourkroute and kimchi that off-gass CO2 may be good for digestion but are contirbuting to global warming" - "Digestive enzymes and bacteria, although helpful for our immune system create more CO2 in our lifetime than driving a Cadillac from San Francisco to New York" - "Researchers have found on average boys give off more CO2 than girls in their lifetime. They recommend family planning and gene-therapy to force expecting parents to give birth to more girls" I may be going overboard for the sake of making this point, but I think collectively, with all of our intelligence, we can come up with alternative solution to our current climate and world issues without imposing restrictions on ourselves that only look good on a spreadsheets. I wrote couple of blog entries on the issue of beef.. would like to share it with you all. check out with the titles True Cost of Beef & True Cost of Beef - Part 2
zjraby picture
I get tired of the numerous studies decrying beef and red meat that fail to take into account how that animal was raised. Other studies have found that cows fed grass and done so using Management Intensive Grazing produce as much as 20% less methane than their feed lot counterparts (DeRamus, H. A., T. C. Clement, D. D. Giampola, and P. C. Dickison. "Methane Emissions of Beef Cattle on Forages: Efficiency of Grazing Management Systems." J Environ Qual 32, no. 1 (2003): 269-77). Not to mention the fact that those same cows then improve soil fertility. They can even be grazed on land that is not suitable for other types of agriculture. They also utilize something we humans cannot digest - grass. has more as does Michael Polan's book "Omnivore's Dilema".
cmyres picture
I hope we can balance our desire for ethically-produced, locally grown food with our human need for a healthy diet. By that I mean, one that provides the nutrients for growth and health. The key phrase in the article seems to be 'one day a week'; women especially need dairy for bone strength & health and I don't think anyone would advocate leaving it out of our diets completely, regardless of the environmental impact of dairy farming. This is such a complex issue, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
MeredithBeerbower picture
If we all supported local farming and organic farming methods we could run these giant, industrial "farms" out of business, or at the very least force them to take a step back and realize that their ideals are not shared by consumers. We are the first country to put convenience over quality, shelf-life over taste, and gimmicks over real, honest food. What has happened?!? Instead of supporting feedlots thousands of miles away, we need to support the people who work hard to produce quality food in our hometown.
csc8662 picture
If every one ate a plant based diet, that would be a greater and more positive benefit on the environment because plants dont produce methane and dont require pounds of corn and grain which comes from convential farming practices which uses a lot of pesticides.
andrew59 picture
Michael Pollan has written a couple of books about this subject. I learned a lot from his writings.
Tennisvibes picture
This is great news. We already know that chicken and fish are much better for you. This will give people another reason to choose chicken and fish over red meat. I wonder if Turkey falls into the fish and chicken category.
toenopaw picture
I'm just curious what falls under the "other" category. Are these things put in food that aren't really food? Or are they packaging for the food? Please shed some light-- I have racked my brain trying to think of "food items" that aren't covered by your other categories with no luck. Thanks. Have a wonderful day! -Tonopah-