Are not vegetarian sinners

Diet: are vegetarians the bigger polluters?

by Peter Carstens
"Salad is more polluting than meat!" An American study recently made such headlines. Can vegetarians and vegans pack up now?

Didn't veggies think for a long time that eating meat was also bad because a lot, a lot of land (or former rainforest), energy for transport and water is necessary for its production? And because the cattle emit considerable amounts of the extremely harmful greenhouse gas methane? Just to sketch out an incomplete list of environmental sins?

Carnegie Mellon University scientists recently published a study that appeared to prove exactly the opposite. Which various media gratefully took up.

Now the authors feel compelled to clarify their statement. "You can't throw all the vegetables together and say they're good," scientist Paul Fischbeck told the Huffington Post. And meat is not generally more harmful to the environment than fruit and vegetables.

In their study, the authors examined, among other things, how many greenhouse gases are produced per calorie in the production of plant and animal foods. One thing is clear: lettuce does poorly. In any case, worse than pork. What many media deliberately overlooked: Broccoli, rice, potatoes, spinach or wheat, among others, are still doing better than pork.

A distinction also has to be made when it comes to water consumption. In their study, the authors come to the conclusion that more "blue" water is used for cherries, mushrooms and mangoes than for any type of meat. Blue water is water that is withdrawn directly from surface or groundwater.

What the study was actually about

The vortex over the study obscures the fact that the scientists were actually on a completely different track. Originally it was not about comparing a vegetarian or vegan diet with a meat-based one. The authors simply wanted to estimate the environmental impact of the current dietary recommendations from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health.

A diet that included the foods recommended by the USDA, but in which no calories were reduced, turned out to be particularly harmful to the environment. According to the study, such a nutrition strategy leads to a 43 percent increase in energy consumption, a 16 percent higher consumption of blue water and eleven percent more greenhouse gases.

However, none of the scenarios examined were vegetarian or vegan. And the authors did not claim that the bottom line was that vegetarians were the bigger polluters than meat eaters.

Energy use, blue water footprint, and greenhouse gas emissions for current food consumption patterns and dietary recommendations in the US

more on the subject