Over the years my diet has become fairly veggie-forward. I guess you can call me a flexitarian. My diet is mostly vegan, but I don't completely abstain from meat. And honestly – judge me if you'd like – I've adopted this lifestyle and diet not because I’m philosophically against eating meat, nor is this the result of becoming more environmentally conscious through the years. Are you surprised? Those who don’t truly know me are always surprised. But truth be told, I switched to a veggie-forward diet for no other reason than it feeling better for me, my body.
I'm an endurance athlete, I run ultra-marathons - yes, for fun - and I feel like I have more energy when eating more vegetables. It’s also just better for my digestion during those long-runs. Having said that, I’m often challenged by some who believe I’m veggie-forward “for the wrong reasons”. You laugh, but it’s true! I’ve actually been told that I “should” be veggie-forward – or should ideally practice veganism – because it’s better for the environment. But before I continue I'll just say that plant-based diets are in general better for the planet than animal-derived diets. Having said that I feel like the average person's belief is that no harm is being done when you adopt a veggie-forward or vegan diet; that veganism is always environmentally friendly, almost by default. But, while that may be the case more often than not, I don’t think that’s the case 100 percent of the time. And that's precisely where I get hung up. The idea that being veggie-forward is without flaw.
This topic is far more nuanced than most people choose to believe. I suspect much of a veggie-forward or vegan diet - and whether it's environmentally friendly - is still heavily influenced on the type of plant-based food you eat, where it comes from, the distance in which it travels – from the producer to your table – and even the types of agricultural practices, the fertilizer used, and the type of land and water used to grow said crops.
And let me be clear, this isn't a debate about whether plant-based diets are more or less environmentally friendly than meat-based diets. The jury is out on that, animal-derived foods have a greater carbon footprint in most cases. But to me it's just not as black and white and precisely why I'm focused on the sustainability of plan-based diets in general, and here’s why. While most plant-based foods have a lower carbon footprint, in many cases you need to eat more - and of certain types - to gain the same nutrients you would get from meats, dairy and animal fat. In this scenario those like myself would eat more nuts, seeds, soy product or plant-based protein. And here's where things get slightly more complicated. Some of these plant-based foods – that would otherwise provide nutrients similar to animal-derived products – either release more greenhouse gas (GHG), are water intense and in many cases are not within the "safe zone" of being considered a sustainable product.
So, while we can agree that meat in general produces far more GHG, our focus should also include the plant-based products we know to be water intense, in some cases causing and contributing to deforestation and those that produce more GHG resulting from the methods used to produce and transport them to consumers.
But, to satisfy those who want to talk about meat, let's get this out of the way quickly... and I mean very quickly.
The quick statement about meat to satisfy the very few.
There’s no doubt that meat – particularly beef – has a profoundly negative impact on the environment. It requires a lot of land and water to produce, also requiring transport. I’d also be remiss if I didn't mention the issue with cow burps and flatulence that produce methane. It’s assessed that beef as a single food product has the worst environmental impact of all single food products. It's also estimated that even the most responsible of meat products still produce more GHG than any plant-based protein product.
So there you have it, we know that plant-based in general is more environmentally friendly than meat. But let's get back on task to the topic at hand. The task and topic being that plant-based diets aren't by default environmentally friendly. So, for those like me who want to adopt a veggie-forward – or fully vegan – diet for environmental reasons, I have some suggestions and considerations. We should think twice about which foods we choose because different plant-based options may come at a high environmental price.
When I think about most vegetarians, vegans or flexitarians, we eat a lot of leafy green vegetables, fruits and other grains. But to get some of the rich fats and nutrients we need for our bodies, we often add other toppings to our salads, entrees, smoothies and in-between-meal snacks. Some of the most common include fruits like avocado, mango, strawberries, bananas, tree nuts like almonds, cashews and walnuts, and even others in the fungi category like mushrooms and even soy.
But what environmental costs do folks like me pay in order to make our meals heartier in our attempts to get nutrients we would otherwise get from animal-derived food?
Some crops are water intense.
We have to consider what I’ll call "tradeoffs". We already covered the fact that meat in general has a high carbon footprint, and in general plant-based diets are better for the environment, but there are some exceptions to that rule. Exceptions we have to really consider.
Let’s take avocados as an example, just a single avocado requires close to 60 gallons of water to produce. Did you know that? What about our highly prized mangos? Well, you’re looking at close to 216 gallons of water to produce just 2.2 pounds of mango fruit. To put that into perspective that’s nearly the equivalent to a 36-ounce fruit bowl you might find at your local grocery store in the prepared food section.
And while these numbers may seem high, this is just scratching the surface compared to some of the tree nuts that are highly sought after by those like myself who are veggie-forward. For example, cashews, almonds and walnuts - while nutrient dense and high in fats and proteins – are water-intensive. Tree nuts like these in many cases require nearly 1,050 gallons to produce just 2.2 pounds of these nuts. Let’s break this down. To produce the equivalence of a 36.4-ounce value size jar of mixed nuts you'd find at your grocery store, more than 1,000 gallons of water is consumed? Yep, that’s correct. Not to mention, the nut milks we love to consume, splash in our coffee as creamer substitute, pour in our cereal, or our plant-based smoothies, those too also use a much higher volume of water than milk sourced from a cow.
As a comparison, to produce a single glass of almond milk, it requires nearly 20 gallons of water. Similarly, rice milk – while less water intense – needs around 14 gallons per glass.
Am I ruining your appetite yet? I hope not, this isn't meant to guilt anyone. But, the more we know the more we can change.
I’m sure we could go through a long list of plant-based options, but we’ll end with mushrooms. Mushrooms themselves emit an average of 6.5 pounds of carbon dioxide just to yield 2.2 pounds of edible food. To put that in perspective, that’s the same amount of carbon dioxide produced from tuna and other saltwater fish.
So, why do I share this? Well, because I think the idea that being vegan or even veggie-forward as always being environmentally friendly isn’t always true. It's more complex than most people would admit. And really, when we start to think about this more critically what we may find is that choosing food has tradeoffs. So, in these instances, while the GHG emitted from these foods may be on the lighter end compared to animal-derived products, some of these plant-based foods require a ton of water. But wait, there’s more! It doesn’t just end with what we eat. How and from where we get our plant-based food is equally as important, and in some cases far more important.
The agricultural process.
Just like meat, plant-based foods – and more specifically the plants themselves – require land, water and technology to produce. In this modern era, it’s not uncommon to find that farmers and agriculturists need both land and equipment to grow their crops. And in some instances, the crops in question require a considerable amount of land to reap the desired outcome.
Let’s take soy as an example. Tofu and other soy-based products are often chosen to support plant-based lifestyles. But soy requires a large area of land to produce and harvest. In some cases, the vast amount of land to produce soy has led to deforestation due to land conversion efforts just to plant and harvest soy. It’s also reported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that after beef, soy comes in at second place as being the largest agricultural cause of deforestation across the globe. Yet, soy-based products are sought after by those living a plant-based lifestyle. But nobody bats an eye at that. I find that curious.
Following soy, there’s also palm and cocoa plantations that contribute to deforestation as land-intensive crops. Since the late 1980’s it’s estimated that close to 7.4 million acres of tropical forests have been cleared out for cocoa plantations across West Africa alone. To put that into perspective, that’s slightly larger in size than the land mass of the entire state of Maryland. That might not seem like much, but that has a long-term negative impact to the biodiversity of any geographic location and its inhabitants.
Adding to this, even these land-intense crops need a fair amount of fertilizer to produce. It’s estimated that close to 2.5 percent of all the world’s GHG emissions stem from artificial fertilizers used to grow and nourish agricultural land. Even the manufacturing of these synthetic fertilizers are responsible for emitting carbon dioxide and methane into the environment and air we breathe. But it doesn’t stop there. Why you ask? Because these same crops still need transporting from the producer to the consumer.
So, what’s this mean for GHG emissions? Well, it means that some of these foods also carry what are called “food miles”. What’s are food miles? It’s essentially the miles over which a food item is transported during the journey from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement of the fuel used to transport it. For example, let’s take the avocados and mangos we talked about earlier. These items are often imported when out of season. The emissions of aircraft and road-bound vehicles add to the carbon footprint of those fruits respectively.
The bottom line is that food miles exist for every type of food, and the further the distance it is to source that plant-based food, the more GHG emissions that food carries.
Final thoughts on “eating green”.
Here’s where I land, not all vegan or veggie-forward foods and diets are environmentally friendly or sustainable. So, to me, if a veggie-forward or vegan diet is to be as environmentally friendly or sustainable as it can be, we have to make choices beyond simply eating more plant-based food.
In my estimation, while generally plant-based foods and diets carry a lower carbon footprint, vegan and veggie-forward lifestyles can still have a negative impact on the planet. It’s almost like there is a tradeoff – in my examples specifically – between the use of water versus the amount of GHG produced.
All of this to say that while we might split hairs, or debate some of the pros and cons here, I think we can all agree that if we truly care about making positive contributions towards instilling and incorporating greener practices in how we eat, we still have to be much more thoughtful in the food options we prioritize.
In some instances, I would even say we would need to narrow down those food options to those that contribute the fewest GHG and water use. For example, we can think about minimizing our consumption of imported exotic foods – or those imported solely for commercial gain - and prioritize higher those that are grown locally, thus reducing the food miles. We can even think more smartly about the types of nuts and nut milks we consume, or other products that may require far more water to produce. To do so of course we would need to rethink from where we get our fats and proteins, and prioritizing other sources not derived from water intense tree nuts or soy.
And again, this isn't about demonizing meat, nor making folks feel bad about the types of plant-based foods they consume, it's about knowing, so that we can make better more well informed choices. And you know that they say in the cartoon G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle, and now you know.