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Cows Aren't Part of a Climate-Healthy Diet, Study Says


More and more consumers are trying to reduce the environmental impacts of the foods they eat. 

But it's not so easy to know what to do -- in part because of the bewildering array of food choices the market offers, but also because it's hard to know what food choices carry the biggest impact.

This nifty study tries to clear away some of the murk, by tackling a fairly straightforward question:  If you care about the climate, which is more important:  what kind of food you eat, or  where that food is grown?

To summarize the findings:  all else being equal, locally-grown food is friendlier to the climate than food grown half a continent away.   But if you're looking for a single food choice that will help curb your climate impact, your best bet is to stay away from cows!


Take a look, for example, at this chart of GHG emissions per calorie, for different kinds of foods.  Red meat (the dark blue bar) has far and away the biggest climate impact.  Nothing else comes close.  Dairy products (the light blue bar) are next. In comparison, the climate impacts of grains and vegetable oils were pretty modest.

So based on this chart, it seems that the easiest, most climate-friendly food choice you can make is to cut red meat out of your diet.  Just about any other way of getting calories is better for the atmosphere.  And if you can also shift from dairy to something else, all the better.

In a nifty bit of analytical work, the authors compared the GHG impacts of food choices with the impacts of  "food miles" -- i.e., the distance that food travels from farm field to plate.  Based on US data, they estimate that food travels about 1,640 km, on average, to get from the farm to the grocery aisle. But surprisingly, the climate impact of that journey is pretty minimal:  delivering food "from the farm or production facility to the retail store"-- the most common definition of food miles--represented only 4 percent of total food-related GHG emissions.

That's not to say that eating local isn't important.  But given the outsized climate impacts of beef, it does suggest that subtle shifts in food choices can have a bigger climate benefit than major shifts towards a local diet.  In fact, the authors calculate that shifting just 12 percent of the typical consumer's meat and dairy calories to veggie-based foods has the same climate benefit as going 100 percent local for all food purchases. 

Still, going veggie AND local is better than doing just one or the other.  Which is all the more reason why a locally-grown tomato is a wonder of the sustainable world.


Picture courtesy of Flickr user Elizabeth Thomsen.

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Having changed my diet along those lines for about 15 years now, I would add a couple of things.
The life/health quality you gain from a mostly meat-free diet.
Beyond consuming more carbon, seems to me that cows obviously need way more land than cereals to yield equivalent food value. In a time where land resources are scarce, this is also a parameter to put in the balance. I've made a quick search for figures on that, but could not find any reliable source so far.
That said, being born in Normandy, quite close to Camembert, I would have hard time seeing a world without cows in the landscape, and without butter and cheese on the table :)

Posted by: Bernard Vatant on 9 Jun 08

The problem are NOT cows!! The problem is the industrialization of an unnatural and unsustainable food industry. A cow performs deeds that are essential in a sustainable farm. The cows that roam in the pasture of sustainable farms are far from being a problem. The insanity of CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) where cows are fed a combination of animal fat (usually their own) corn, antibiotics and vitamins supplements, have not the physical and biological system to digest all this. Consequence: production of methane, sometime so bad that cows explode if not treated. Compared to cows fed with grass, where nature does its work, no such problem exist.

Posted by: daniel Peeters on 9 Jun 08

If it's the cows, then why isn't dairy comparable to red meat?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 9 Jun 08

There is no doubt that Red Meat heads the list of environmentally unsound practices. It will probably become the next Yuppie rallying cry. No longer will we hear their constant plaint of why they no longer eat chicken and have gone COMPLETELY VEGAN.

However, Why did it take so long. Bill McKibben ably point out this horrible conundrum in his book, The End of Nature, more than 20 years ago (farting cows being the prime suspects).

Isn't it a little late now?

Posted by: Bill Goldschein on 11 Jun 08

I read in the New York Times in January ('Rethinking the Meat Guzzler") that if Americans ate 20% less red meat, the energy use reduction would be equivalent to everyone in the U.S. switching from a Camry to a Prius. Red meat has a huge energy impact.

The large factory cow farms are dysfunctional at so many levels. Their scale overwhelms the surrounding environment in terms of stormwater runoff and air quality. The quality of life of the cows is horrific because of the lack of space and the food cows are fed. When my family drives through the Calif. Central Valley on vacation we pass the Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and wish more people knew where their red meat comes from. They'd probably eat less CAFO red meat if they knew about the Cow-schwitz type farms that raise their food.

Posted by: Justine Burt on 11 Jun 08

What about cows who live at a methane capture facility...isn't that carbon neutral red meat?

Posted by: Kent Ragen on 11 Jun 08

Studies about vegetarianism have been conducted before, and I have pandered to more than one opinion since I have been a vegetarian all my life. It has helped my diet, but I wouldn't go so far as to claim that I have been consciously environmentally friendly. Food habits alone don't determine whether or not we can reduce CO2 emissions. Food habits are only part of the problem. Wasteful habits contribute more to pollution and environmental degradation than food habits alone may contribute. Unchecked industrialization, careless waste dumping, cover-ups, a public who are generally too lazy and too spoiled to follow environmentally friendly practices despite being from "the most educated nation" in the world, are all part of the problem.

Research like this is illuminating about one or two aspects of the problem but the larger issues persist.

Posted by: Rajesh on 12 Jun 08

Well said comments by Daniel Peeters and Tony Frisk

Posted by: Alan McCrindle on 13 Jun 08

Did you know cows can cry? They cry when we kill them.

Posted by: Alistair on 15 Jun 08

Using calories per weight to consider food intake is odd. Nutrients per calories gives a far better picture of what is good for you. And the environment, too.

Posted by: Hans Suter on 16 Jun 08

Arguments against red meat motivated by it's environmental footprint tend, in my experience, to be met with objections about nutritional needs. Iron, protein, all the usual clap-trap. No, humans do not need to eat meat. End of story. In fact, an intimidatingly cogent body of evidence to the contrary now exists and is well-presented in T. Colin Campbell's 'The China Study' (2006). I thoroughly recommend this book.

Posted by: Drew on 18 Jun 08

I recently watched a TED presentation on this and it was so compelling that I've decided to give up meat except for my monthly Waguy night.

Please help: What's the best place on the intarnets to learn about proper, easy, balanced contemporary diet?

Posted by: Pierre on 18 Jun 08

Hi Pierre.

You must visit
"vegetarian starter's kit"
it's written by actual physicians with degrees and all :)

Posted by: Alistair Dark on 18 Jun 08



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