Sustainable eating: The carbon footprint of different diets

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A vegetarian diet is a great way to eat lower on the food chain and reduce your carbon footprint.  Though I’ve always known that cutting meat out of my diet decreases a person's carbon footprint, I never knew by how large of a factor.  It turns out that becoming a vegetarian can have quite a large environmental impact!  A University of Chicago report, Diet, Energy, and Global Warming, compares the carbon footprint of consuming meat to that of driving different cars.  The authors concluded that a person who consumes red meat with 35% of the calories from animal sources (which includes cheese and eggs), when compared to a vegetarian, contributes an additional GHG burden equal to the difference in GHG emissions of driving an SUV as opposed to driving a Camry.  This difference contributes to 6% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions!

This infographic also compares the carbon footprint of 20 different foods to the number of miles driven.  While the carbon footprint varies depending on several factors, such as how far the food travels and how it is manufactured, foods such as tomatoes and lentils have a significantly lower carbon footprint than red meat.


What about different types of diets?

According to Colin Dunn from Planet Green, just being a vegetarian during the week can reduce your carbon footprint by 0.7 tons, or 1400 pounds.  This is the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions created by a round-trip flight from Boston to Wichita, Kansas!  A vegan diet, on the other hand, will reduce your carbon footprint by 2 tons. 

So… should everyone in the world become a vegetarian?

Not necessarily.  It is important for people to be aware of the impact of what they are eating, but based on the growing conditions of your region, what is most sustainable to consume will vary.  In some areas where the growing season is shorter, it is more difficult to grow fruits and vegetables.  In this case, it is better to eat a diet that includes local meat and dairy products.  Shopping at local farmers markets is a great way to ensure that what you are purchasing is local and sustainably grown.  You can also invest in a CSA share. Check out our blog post to learn more about CSAs and where to find one near you.

While becoming a vegetarian has its benefits, before making the change in your lifestyle, take the time to research what type of diet will have the lowest carbon footprint based on where you live and what food is locally grown.  You might be surprised by how low of a carbon footprint purchasing meat from a local farm can be.  Then again, you may find that becoming a vegetarian is the best option!  It’s really up to you to do the research and decide.