Plant-Based vs. Locally-Based Diets, which is better for the environment?
Many modern cultures have long ago relinquished the role of hunter-gatherers. Nowadays, most of us are far removed from the food processing part of our lives and the side effects of our diets. The sad reality is that our food requires a lot more energy and produces more greenhouse gasses than we think. As consumers look for the best diet for both their health and to reduce their carbon footprint, two movements stand out: plant-based diets and locally-based diets.
The Argument for Plant-Based Diets
When I first dedicated myself to reducing my carbon footprint and living a more sustainable life, I cut meat out of my life cold turkey (I couldn’t resist the pun.) I was blown away by how much of an impact the meat industry has on the planet.
A few fast facts about an omnivore’s carbon footprint:
- Livestock alone contribute to 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, including methane – a greenhouse gas much more impactful than CO2. For the first 20 years after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than CO2. Methane is found in cow manure and the animal emits digesting its food.
- Greenhouse gas production doesn’t end with a cow’s bodily functions. Throughout an animal’s life, they have to eat, too. Thirty percent of the land that is used for food production is actually being used to feed cows, pigs, and chickens…essentially, food for food.
- Cattle ranching and grazing for the meat industry is one of the top causes of deforestation around the world and especially in the Amazon.
For the first few months of eating a plant-based diet, I felt pretty good about my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. Living a vegan lifestyle, and learning a lot about the environment in the process, was initially very satisfying.
During the summer, I was working on an organic farm that raised chickens and turkeys for slaughter. I didn’t participate in the Slaughter Day and politely declined any offer to eat meat on the farm. One morning, I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and inspired me to be more circumspect about my diet and its far-reaching environmental impact and especially my diet’s impact on my personal carbon footprint.
The Argument for a Locally-Based Diet
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – A Year of Food Life chronicles a year in which Kingsolver’s family attempts to only eat food that was grown in their own county or surrounding area. The family grows a large garden in their backyard, raises chickens, and restrains the urge to get fast food or certain delicacies.
A few facts about a long distance diet:
- We burn 20 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce just two calories of food energy.
- Food that travels long distances needs to be preserved and continuously refrigerated along the way. Methods of preservation include radiation to kill bacteria or adding synthetic preservatives.
- Developing relationships with more local and (typically) smaller food producers allows you to make more informed decisions about what the producer is using to raise their animals, fertilize plants, preserve and transport the food.
The book and my time on the farm got me thinking about my diet. The avocados and bananas that I was buying en masse to replace eggs (why do we refrigerate eggs anyway?) and other ingredients were certainly not being grown at a local farm. Meanwhile, I collected eggs from a chicken coop and used up no energy bringing it over to the farm’s shelves. (Since I wasn’t buying the eggs from a grocery store, no energy was needed to refrigerate the eggs.)
There are certainly pros and cons to both methods. So what is the best option for the environment?
The reality is, the most environmentally friendly diet for your lifestyle may not be the same day by day. Your diet may be heavily influenced by things like location, income, and health needs. For many, a strictly plant-based or strictly local diet can be impractical and expensive.
As you choose your diet for the day, consider the food life of the items that you are buying. How was it grown? How far did it travel? How will it be preserved in your home? Who will your purchase benefit?
Remind yourself as you consume that your diet does contribute to a carbon footprint in some way, but making conscious choices and not limiting yourself to one diet (or any choice relating to your lifestyle,) can slowly but surely make a difference in your carbon footprint.
Megan Okonsky is a writer, yogi, and traveler who enjoys being barefoot and doesn’t mind the term “granola.” She is the marketing director for Our Future Footprint, an apparel company that plants trees and donates to conservation and education initiatives for each purchase.