What we eat affects the environment. For example, we’ve heard that eating meat has a large and mostly negative environmental impact. In contrast, adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet is advertised as one way to lower your environmental impact. However, a recent study published in Scientific Reports indicates things are a little more complicated than that.
Animal Products Aren’t The Only Factor
This study tracked 153 Italian adults’ eating habits for a 7-day study. Then they calculated these diets’ nutritional values and environmental impacts. The study group included 51 omnivores (people who eat vegetable and animal products, including meat), 51 ovo-lacto vegetarians (vegetarians who will eat milk and eggs), and 51 vegans (who eat no animal products).
While the study still found that people eating an omnivorous diet tended to have the largest ecological footprint, there were some surprises. For one, the study found no difference in the environmental impacts of vegans and vegetarians. Even more surprising, some individual vegetarians and vegans had higher environmental impacts than certain omnivores. Clearly, whether or not you’re eating animal products isn’t the only thing affecting the environment.
Food Sourcing Really Matters
Most studies of this sort use hypothetical diets or an average of the population to look at the environmental impact of different diets. But this study focused on reflecting the actual eating habits of real people. They also integrated an analysis of the food’s impact on water consumption and land use instead of focusing only on greenhouse gas emissions. This holistic approach brought to light several interesting observations.
Where food comes from and how it is processed matters. Environmentally speaking, there’s no difference between the impact of vegetarians and vegans. There’s a good chance this is because some vegans replace animal products with highly processed meat and dairy substitutes. The highly-processed nature of these substitutes off-sets the lower impact what we would expect to see when cutting animal products out.
Making An Impact With Your Eating Philosophy
There’s no denying that meat-eaters, in general, have a higher environmental impact than those who consume a plant-based diet. But the fact that several omnivores participating in this study had a lower environmental impact than some of the vegetarians and vegans shows this doesn’t always have to be the case.
While researchers still need to do more study, we can say that developing a conscious eating philosophy matters. Whether or not you choose to eat meat, it’s a good idea to pay attention to where your food is coming from and what it went through to get to you. And if you are going to eat meat try to buy from local, preferably organic, farms where animals are ethically raised. That will lessen the environmental impact and make the meat healthier for you. And ultimately that’s what we all want – healthy eating that supports our bodies and keeps the planet happy.