Vegan Eating Trumps Eating Locally

keep-calm-and-eat-localHappy Earth Day, a tiny bit early. In the interests of promoting green, I thought I 'd share with you this study I found. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University did a comprehensive study of the carbon footprint of food. Apparently the push to "eat local" isn't as impactful to the environment as eating lower on the food chain.

Food travelled an average of 1640 km in its final trip to the grocery store, out of total of 6760 km on the road for the raw ingredients. But some foods log more kilometres than others. Red meat averaged 20,400 km – just 1800 of those from final delivery.

Accounting for greenhouse gas emissions made those contrasts even starker. Final delivery "food-miles" make up just 1% of the greenhouse emissions of red meat, and 11% for fruits and vegetables.

To drive his point home, Weber calculated that a completely local diet would reduce a household's greenhouse emissions by an amount equivalent to driving a car 1600 km fewer per year. He assumed the car travels 10.6 km per litre of petrol (25 mpg). Switching from red meat to veggies just one day per week would spare 1860 km of driving.

Source: New Scientist Magazine

This is contrary to what a lot of people have been talking about lately. Jane's been reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which Ms. Kingsolver details her family's experiment of living off the land for a year, and supplementing only with foods they buy directly from farmers markets and other local sources. Ms. Kingsolver promotes the economic, social, and health benefits of putting local foods at the center of a family diet.

And while I agree with the concept of eating locally in general, the Carnegie Mellon study validates Jane's choice of sautéed tofu and veggies followed by a non-local dessert of cut up pineapple, mango, and blackberries for dinner tonight. The 11% of additional food miles added to the greenhouse emissions of these fruits, since they're not local, doesn't even compare to what I've saved by not eating meat!

-- If you haven't signed our petition to Oprah asking her to do a piece on factory farming, please consider doing so. We can all work together to make a difference.


  1. A documentary titled “6 Degrees Can Change the World” illuminated the issue of the environmental impact of a non-vegan diet well:

    All the cheeseburgers, and cheeseburgers alone, that are consumed in the U.S. amount to over 200 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This number represents more of an environmental impact than all the s.u.v.’s in the U.S. combined.

    This was stunning to me; even more stunning, however, is how the section of the documentary where environmentally friendly life changes are discussed, there was not even a single mention of consuming less or no meat. What a disconnect.

  2. Hi Alex,
    That sounds like an interesting documentary. We’ll have to keep our eyes open.
    Wow, that’s shocking re the cheeseburgers. It’s really amazing to me how much more of an impact we can have eating vegan!
    Most of the news programs today seemed to have short segment on what to do to help combat global warming and not one of them mentioned consuming less meat. My guess, the meat industry is too large to anger.

  3. I often joke that people are willing to have less of an environmental impact so long as they don’t actually have to change any of those habits that they really desire. Getting rid of water bottles is easy enough, but avoiding that cheeseburger, well, “I saw something that said global warming isn’t even fact,” is their response.

  4. Hey Alex,
    Unfortunately, I think your “joke” is often the reality. We’ve got the easiest recycling here: anything 1-7 (plastic) goes into the recycling bin which goes on the curb at the same time as all the other garbage collection, and yet I still see tons of recyclable material in my neighbors garbage cans. Argh!
    Yeah, getting rid of that cheeseburger is probably not going to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future. But perhaps we can get people to eat FEWER cheeseburgers.

  5. thanks, no cheeseburger problem here. haven’t touched them in years. but yes, the liklihood of the USA reducing the meat comsumption is realistic, elimination is not reality.

  6. Hi Patty.
    Over time, who knows what we can accomplish. But it’s going to take a lot of time. The thing that’s scary to me is that while we’re trying to cut down our consumption, the rest of the world is stepping up theirs and populations are continuing to rise…

  7. I agree that less meat consumption is important but I think it’s a stretch to say that not eating meat justifies regular pineapple desserts. Animals can be part of a holistic farm system in which they graze on land that’s not arable, consume agricultural waste products, and produce manure that is valuable for farming. If we all ate food locally we would eat less meat by default because in a just, equitable, ethical food system meat would be far more expensive (mainly because grass-fed animals take longer to raise and ethical meat production requires more land per animal, not to mention ag subsidies aren’t in the equation). By the laws of economics, the higher price of local meat reduces the demand i.e. no more McDonald’s hamburgers at 2 for $1.00. Thus I think it’s unfair to say that a vegan diet is “better” than a local diet–what’s wrong with a mostly local vegan diet? Packaged, processed vegan foods (fake meats, for instance) are energy-intensive as it is.

  8. Hi Stefanie,
    I’ve no idea why either, as you can see, they often work. Perhaps the spam filter got you?

    Hi Becky,
    I agree that animals can be part of a holistic farm system. However, that’s not the case here in the US (for the most part). With over a billion animals being processed for food here annually, the bucolic farm where animals are grass-fed and allowed to roam freely is just not practical. And there’s more waste product generated that can be used (plenty of stats on pollution there ). And if McDonald’s et al have anything to say in the matter (and I believe they’ve got plenty of input here), then the cost of meat won’t accurately reflect the true costs of producing it.
    I just find it reprehensible that the media keep touting “eat local” as if that is the solution. Clearly the idea of eating meatless is something they don’t believe they can get the US consumer to buy into. — Or the agribusiness lobby is more powerful than I’d like to contemplate. — Regardless, New Scientist magazine shows that my pineapple is less impactful to the planet than that steak my cousin ordered for dinner tonight.
    As for the packaged processed vegan foods, yes, they’re more energy intensive than what I buy at the farmers market, however, they still have significantly less of an impact than meat.
    I’m not saying that eating locally isn’t important. I am saying that by eating meatless I’m doing more for the planet than someone who only buys there produce from the farmers market and still eats meat regularly.

  9. Mmm, sorry. I have to go with Becky on this one. As both a vegan and a buyer of local food, I have to say that this headline of yours sends the wrong message. While it’s depressing that “the idea of eating meatless is something [the media] do[es]n’t believe [it] can get the US consumer to buy into,” it’s not as if it surprises anyone that they instead emphasize eating local. Cutting out meat (and certainly going vegan) are way too drastic for most people to consider doing over the long-term.

    Anyway, I just want to add that I think the title of this post is a bit…irresponsible in that sense. It’s not as if we should chastise those who choose to eat meat but buy local, instead of just giving up meat altogether. People will do only what they’re willing to do–and buying local is a big step, at least in terms of animal welfare (usually) if not environmentally (given your statistics).

  10. Hi “B”
    Again, you’re entitled to your opinion. It is my belief (based in part on the cited references) that it is more beneficial to eat vegan than to eat local. I did not say they are mutually exclusive. The point I am making is that this is a more impactful behavior and it would be nice for the media to at least suggest eating vegan one day per week.
    You’re saying that cutting meat consumption is too drastic. So what… People should buy their produce at the farmers market… But buy their meat at the supermarket, as usual.
    I’m not chastising anyone, except perhaps the media. If people want to eat meat, that’s their prerogative. I’m just pointing out the benefits of eating meatless far outweigh the benefits of eating locally.

  11. Interesting too, since most of the hamburger in the US comes from “spent” dairy cows…

    Or maybe the study included the environmental impact of dairy consumption as well? It should, in any event.

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