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A Plant-based Diet Has A Lower Impact: Myth Or Not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: reducing impact by going without meat.

By Paula Bernstein on April 25, 2016

The relationship between food and environmental impact is a popular topic of discussion and debate. Traditional wisdom states that eating a plant-based diet is better for the environment than consuming meat. The “meatless Monday” movement, for example, claims that one good reason to go meatless one day per week is to reduce our carbon footprint and conserve resources such as water and fossil fuels.

 

However, in December of last year, meat lovers everywhere celebrated when a new study was published stating that “vegetarian and healthy diets could be more harmful to the environment”. As a vegetarian myself, I am very interested the research on this subject. So, myth or not? What type of diet is better for the environment?

 

Choosing The Right Functional Unit

Anyone who has conducted an LCA study understands the importance of choosing a functional unit: the basis for your comparison. In many cases, you can’t simply compare product A and product B, because they have different performance characteristics.

 

For example, a disposable water bottle can only be used once, while a reusable water bottle can be used many times. If the purpose of the LCA is to compare packaging systems, you can’t compare the impact of one bottle to the impact of the other bottle. A much better approach would be to compare drinking a set amount of water (say 100 litres) out of each.

 

What Can Go Wrong If You Pick The Wrong Functional Unit?

Choosing the right functional unit is also very important when comparing vegetarian diets to diets that include meat. The study mentioned above, by Carnegie Mellon, found that “eating lettuce is more than three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon.” When I first saw this title, I immediately wondered about the functional unit – and it turns out that the functional unit the researchers chose in this study was calories.

 

In my opinion, that’s misleading. Lettuce has very few calories and bacon is a very high-calorie meat. To get the same number of calories from lettuce as you get from a few strips of bacon, you need to eat a lot of lettuce. Three strips of bacon have about 130 calories. For comparison, an entire head of lettuce has only 50 calories. Do you know anyone who would choose to eat three heads of lettuce as substitute for three strips of bacon? Nutritionally, these are very different – they serve very different functions.

 

What Functional Unit Should We Use To Compare Diets?

If we compare meat products and vegetable products on a per kilogram basis, we see very different results. While this may also not be a perfect functional unit, since bacon and lettuce are not comparable nutritionally, it shows how important it is to select a functional unit that makes sense.

 

This is what the comparison looks like per kilogram. As you see, pork has more impact in all three categories, especially carbon and energy. The data is from the Agrifootprint (economic allocation) library, one of several LCI libraries dedicated to agricultural products.

 

Product

Carbon (kg CO2e)

Energy (MJ)

Water (m3)

Pork

3.33

12.5

0.0221

Carrot

0.0913

0.459

0.00306

Spinach

0.246

0.793

0.017

 

An even more appropriate functional unit might compare the impacts of eating a balanced diet that includes meat with the impacts of a balanced vegetarian diet over a period of time, rather than per calorie or per kilogram of one specific product. Even measuring an entire meal, rather than one product, would paint a more complete picture.

 

A 2010 study by ESU-services found in a number of examples that vegetarian meals had about 1/3 the impact of meat-based recipes. Again, there are many factors and individual choices that can be made, so it would be likely difficult to give a definitive answer.

 

Low-impact Plant-based Diets: Myth Or Not?

 

Status: Confirmed

While this new study brings up an interesting point about the efficiency of delivering calories, blogs and other news outlets took the conclusions much too far by stating that bacon is better for the environment than lettuce.

 

The important take-away is not that we should swap all meat for vegetables, but that we should consider the alternatives given the purpose of each. Of course there are many other important factors at play in modelling these products, such as different allocation methods, but overall I think this myth is mostly confirmed.

 

Uncover More Sustainability Myths

This is the tenth part of our Sustainability Mythbusters series. See other episodes:

 

Sustainability Mythbusters IX: Organic food vs Conventional food

Sustainability Mythbusters VIII: Zero Waste

Sustainability Mythbusters VII: Local Sourcing vs Global Sourcing

Sustainability Mythbusters VI: Manufacturing Products With Zero Emissions

Sustainability Mythbusters V: Product Energy Use Reduction

Sustainability Mythbusters IV: Transportation

Sustainability Mythbusters III: Bio-based vs Fuel-based

Sustainability Mythbusters II: Recycling

Sustainability Mythbusters I: Packaging

 

Contact the author

‘In today’s world, I believe it is crucial for companies to make decisions that are both financially sound and also have a positive impact on the environment. Ever since I first learned how humans have damaged the environment, I have been inspired to help preserve our planet so that future generations can enjoy nature the way I have. I am so excited to work for an organization that shares my personal values.’

Contact Paula Bernstein
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