On Monday 8th October 2018, the IPCC (the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), issued their special report (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/) focused on the importance of keeping global warming to within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels, or else the world will suffer dire consequences.
Since then, the news media has been full of articles, letters and posts on what we can do to help. Sadly, only a few of these mention not eating meat, the best thing you can do (as I have been writing about for a while: “The easiest thing we can all do to tackle climate change is also the most effective“).
But here I wanted to address one particular thing that often crops up in these articles – eating locally produced food.
There is no doubt that eating locally produced food is a good thing compared to eating the same food produced far away and transported to you, but if you want to really make a difference you need to think about what you are eating, because this can have an even greater impact.
This is because the vast majority of the green house gases (GHG) associated with food comes from its production (on average 83%), not from its transport (11%). And plant-based food produces vastly less GHG emissions in production than animal-based food, such as meat and dairy. So switching to a vegan diet has a more positive impact on reducing GHG emissions than just eating a non-vegan diet all produced locally (and even if the animal is “produced” locally, often its feed is transported from other producers, often overseas).
This was the finding of a research paper published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology in 2008: “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” (link: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es702969f).
Despite significant recent public concern and media attention to the environmental impacts of food, few studies in the United States have systematically compared the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.
Of course there are a whole host of other environmental and social benefits of eating a vegan diet, such as protecting biodiversity and habitat, reducing water and land use, safeguarding our seas, reducing global human poverty and hunger, and this is not even considering animal ethics.
Here’s another take on the article by The Flaming Vegan blog: Vegan Mythbusting #3 – Eating Local Meat is Better Than Being Vegan.