Local Meat vs. Less Meat

by Andrew Winston – Harvard Business Review

A plant-based diet achieves far greater greenhouse gas reduction than buying ALL locally-sourced food.

Excerpt of review from: Harvard Business Review – June 20, 2011. Review shortened with some emphasis added. Meaning of content unchanged.

Primary research source: Journal of Environmental Science and TechnologyPDF

The idea of buying locally is not new, and farmers’ markets have been big for years. It’s become almost gospel that the food on our plates has traveled about 1500 miles to get to us.

So it would seem logical that the best way to shrink your food-related carbon footprint would be to buy from nearby. But it turns out that this assumption is wrong.

Thankfully, a couple scientists took a harder look at the data and published an analysis in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. The abstract for this article is a prime example of clear writing and good lifecycle analysis — which don’t usually go together — so check it out.

83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.

  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to… a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

None of this data should dissuade anyone from eating locally. The footprint benefits are real, even if dwarfed by food choice. And the benefits to local economies and smaller farms are very important.

But just moving away from meat for one day a week is more effective than buying everything you eat locally.

This number will be surprising to most people, but it’s partly why the global call for Meatless Mondays is gaining steam, with school systems and universities adopting the approach in cities around the world, from Baltimore to Tel Aviv.