Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Are We Doing It Wrong?

I read this in Health Magazine, April 2008, p. 22:

A Diet That Helps the Planet

How green is the food in your refrigerator? Here’s a shocker: if all you eat is veggies and fruits, your diet isn’t as planet-friendly as it could be. According to researchers at Cornell University, it’s important to examine your “food print,” the impact the food you eat has on the environment. Surprisingly, they found that a low-fat, mostly vegetarian diet, which includes a small amount of meat and dairy, requires the least amount of land to produce that food. All-vegetarian diets require more high quality soil, so they’re less kind to the Earth. And the planet suffers the most from regular meat eaters: their diet uses up four times as much land as that of vegetarians.

As this information was new to me, I looked for the Cornell study online to do my research, and although I couldn’t find the complete study, I did find this article.

Diet With A Little Meat Uses Less Land Than Many Vegetarian Diets

ScienceDaily (Oct. 10, 2007)A low-fat vegetarian diet is very efficient in terms of how much land is needed to support it. But adding some dairy products and a limited amount of meat may actually increase this efficiency, Cornell researchers suggest.

This deduction stems from the findings of their new study, which concludes that if everyone in New York state followed a low-fat vegetarian diet, the state could directly support almost 50 percent more people, or about 32 percent of its population, agriculturally. With today's high-meat, high-dairy diet, the state is able to support directly only 22 percent of its population, say the researchers.

The study, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, is the first to examine the land requirements of complete diets. The researchers compared 42 diets with the same number of calories and a core of grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products (using only foods that can be produced in New York state), but with varying amounts of meat (from none to 13.4 ounces daily) and fat (from 20 to 45 percent of calories) to determine each diet's "agricultural land footprint." They found a fivefold difference between the two extremes.

"A person following a low-fat vegetarian diet, for example, will need less than half (0.44) an acre per person per year to produce their food," said Christian Peters, M.S. '02, Ph.D. '07, a Cornell postdoctoral associate in crop and soil sciences and lead author of the research. "A high-fat diet with a lot of meat, on the other hand, needs 2.11 acres." "Surprisingly, however, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of land use," said Peters.

The reason is that fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality cropland, he explained. Meat and dairy products from ruminant animals are supported by lower quality, but more widely available, land that can support pasture and hay. A large pool of such land is available in New York state because for sustainable use, most farmland requires a crop rotation with such perennial crops as pasture and hay.

Thus, although vegetarian diets in New York state may require less land per person, they use more high-valued land. "It appears that while meat increases land-use requirements, diets including modest amounts of meat can feed more people than some higher fat vegetarian diets," said Peters.

"The key to conserving land and other resources with our diets is to limit the amount of meat we eat and for farmers to rely more on grazing and forages to feed their livestock," said Jennifer Wilkins, senior extension associate in nutritional sciences who specializes in the connection between local food systems and health and co-authored the study with Gary Fick, Cornell professor of crop and soil sciences. "Consumers need to be aware that foods differ not only in their nutrient content but in the amount of resources required to produce, process, package and transport them."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American ate approximately 5.8 ounces of meat and eggs a day in 2005. "In order to reach the efficiency in land use of moderate-fat, vegetarian diets, our study suggests that New Yorkers would need to limit their annual meat and egg intake to about 2 cooked ounces a day," Peters said.

The research was supported in part by the National Research Initiative of the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

Adapted from materials provided by Cornell University.
(Emphasis added by me.)

My thoughts:

My gripe is not the findings in this study. There are plenty of other studies that conclude that eat’n veg’n is best for our planet. My gripe is what is printed in Health magazine.

Although the study information is not exactly clear cut, I certainly don’t reach the same conclusion Health magazine does. First of all, the very first sentence in the study article is most compelling and it’s repeated throughout – “A low-fat vegetarian diet is very efficient in terms of how much land is needed to support it.” Contradictory language includes “may” and “not necessarily” and “some higher fat vegetarian diets.” Secondly, the study seems to refer to New York only, not the entire planet! And did you notice the study used only “complete” diets? I guess that’s why a vegan diet wasn’t included!?

I admit that I know nothing about agriculture and/or farming. And I realize that people have their agendas and will manipulate data and misinterpret findings to get the desired results from a study. But after reading the Science Daily article, I think Health magazine got it wrong. Lastly, it seems to me that asking vegetarians to eat meat is counterproductive to the fact that most people consume too many animal products.

What do you think?

If that didn’t stir you up, I bet this will:


Anonymous said...

I don't know whether the article's conclusion is correct or not, but I do know that most people eat a lot of animal products (several times as much as the study's conclusion demonstrates to be optimal). However, it is clear that the result of the study does not apply to individual people; rather it outlines a desired average level of animal product consumption over a large number of people. Since most other people are eating more animal products than they should, it's best for the planet if any individual person is vegan. So we should stick to being vegan.

Also, I don't trust popular science magazines or newspapers to report reasonable data on controversial topics. There's way too much vested interest in selling magazines and newspapers, and one way this is done is by telling people what they want to hear. So they can look through hundreds of studies, most of which contradict their message, and find a few outliers that say what they want, publish those results, and ignore the rest. The general public knows that vegan food is the best for the environment, but people want to be told they're doing things right. So why buy a magazine if it's going to tell them something that they know that makes them feel uncomfortable?

Always the cynic,

aTxVegn said...

Thank you, Simon!

ChocolateCoveredVegan said...

I agree with you in that I, too, came to a different conclusion than Health magazine. Of course, even if it turns out that a vegan diet IS a *little* worse for the planet than is a vegetarian diet, I'm going to stick with my veganism due to all its OTHER benefits (benefits of health AND those of animal-welfare).

Jan Scholl said...

I was partly raised on a farm and it played into the reasons why I don't eat animals today. No animal who has no voice in this world to choose, should have to die for another so-called more intelligent creature's pleasure. There is nothing anyone could say to me to change my mind. I adjust my footprint. I give up other pleasures to make it balance.

P said...

I read about this study a while back, and I think the article makes one big assumption that skews the results, it is based on the idea that people only buy from local farms. It doesn't account for meat being produced and shipped across country. If this was 1880 and we only ate locally this article might have more validity.

VeggieGirl said...

I read that same article in Health magazine just the other day - I think that it's sending a wrong message, since vegetarian/vegan diets HAVE been proven to not only be better for the environment, but better for our health!

Happy Herbivore! said...

most magazines are a fraud and just trying to get your dollar. just last week my mom sent me her latest women magazine where it told her she needed to drink gobs of milk because of her age (this is long after my mom gave it up because I told her it would cause osteoporosis to drink it).

they just want your dollar.

erica said...

The idea that we can cut corners by feeding animals far less quality food, and then consuming that food, is really, ummmm.... what's the word... counterinutitive! I wonder if they also figured in the environmental impact from the animals, or just the land use itself? Doesn't seem like it.

erica said...

ALso, thanks for being proud of me! I'm flying in thursday and have friday free to explore Austin, except I'm not sure if I'm going to be involved in wedding stuff the whole time or if I'm free to roam. I haven't seen her since high school so I'm waiting to hear from the bride. If I have friday free we could meet for lunch or dinner.

pleasantly plump vegan said...

gotta wonder who funds or really backs these studies.

laura jesser said...

There's so much conflicting research out there... can we really read anything on the subject that doesn't have some underlying agenda that it's trying to push? I think people will cite anything to justify their choices without having to reexamine them... As for me, I agree that we should just keep doing what we're doing--like Complexzeta said, the majority of people are vastly overconsuming animal products so our "under" consumption is more than balanced out!

Thanks for posting these stories--I love a good discussion!

Amy Barth said...

As a soil scientist and farmer, it seems this article (although I haven't read the whole thing) is really about efficient land use. You can raise animals on land that you can't farm, either because it is too steep and would cause erosion, too shallow, too rocky, too wet, etc... Using that land for "some" kind of food production is really only going to happen in a grazing setting. The study, I'm sure, was not intended to be used as a source for a popular magazine, and was really for some grad student to get a "pub." I doubt a vegan diet really has that much impact on the planet in comparison to the meat industry, oil industry, coal industry, timber industry, you name your pet-peeve industry here. If only that was the worst of our concerns.

Vegan_Noodle said...

Ok, I'm not gonna even look at that last link...
And I agree with your comments on the article. I hate it when magazines twist results and leave out the details. Readers will believe anything these days.

DAC said...

This article is not well-rooted in scientific evidence, and it surprises me that the faculty at Cornell would support the argument that consuming animal products is better for the environment, as if the animals aren't a part of it!

Dr. T. Colin Campbell, of China Study fame, has provided more than enough evidence that the consumption of animal products is the bane of human health, and since he is also faculty at Cornell, I don't understand how this article managed its way into a "Health" publication.

It's obvious to me. Eating an organic plant-based diet (especially if the produce is locally grown) is the best thing one can do for the environment.

Thanks for posting this and giving me an opportunity to rant!!!

jessy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jessy said...

i think that a lot of the food mile talk and such is kinda variable. i read this article: in the New Yorker and it makes some good points about "food miles".

here's an excerpt:

"The relationship between food miles and their carbon footprint is not nearly as clear as it might seem. That is often true even when the environmental impact of shipping goods by air is taken into consideration. 'People should stop talking about food miles,' Adrian Williams told me. 'It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England... 'The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,' he said. 'It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.' Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. 'This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,’’ he said. 'There is no one number that works.'"

there are just too many factors to consider to come up with the "evidence" they have. i think of how meat eaters can be much more unhealthy - think of all the waste they create being sick (medications for heart conditions, cholesterol, high blood pressure, etc) and how much more food they might be consuming to create excess body weight.

i don't think we're do'n it wrong - i have to say that, for me - veganism is the way to go - "save everything. be vegan!"

Vegan Dad said...

I think the problem with this study is that it focuses on one aspect of food production: land use. A factory is farm is a very efficient use of land, but that says nothing about the lagoon of waste that such a farm produces, the amount of energy needed to run than farm, the welfare of the animals, etc. Land efficiency is not why I went vegan.

bazu said...

I read about this study a while back and it annoyed me to to end. Without going into the wonderful points that others have made, I think this is one of those cases of a study being clearly designed to achieve the desired ends- it focuses on such a narrowly specific case so as to be meaningless. I'm confident about the environmental soundness of my vegan, mostly organic, mostly whole foods, mostly local diet. (Always room for improvement of course, but not through meat or dairy). However, if the entire country were to go mostly veg. with a smidge of meat and dairy because of this article, I wouldn't complain!