Environmentally Speaking

Which Diet Has the Lowest Carbon Footprint?

Food is the most precious resource we have. With a population of 7 billion people, we have to put the majority of our water, land, and energy toward food production.

In the United States alone, our 320-million-person population uses 22% of our water for public and domestic use, while the remaining 78% of water goes to industry and farming – the vast majority of which goes to irrigation alone. 

We need food. But how can we make sure that we’re growing and transporting it as efficiently as possible? If we’re asking people to make behavioral changes by taking shorter showers, reducing waste, changing their light bulbs, etc. then isn’t it reasonable to ask people to make changes where it has the most impact?

Which diet has the lowest carbon footprint for our planet? Which diet has the greatest benefit to our health? And, how can we persuade people to adopt a different diet or at least modify current habits?

Two years ago I watched a documentary called Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and was appalled by how cruel, corrupt, and damaging the agricultural industry in the United States is. Once I was educated of this, it induced cognitive dissonance: my environmental philosophy no longer aligned with my behavior. Do I change my beliefs, or do I change my behavior? I chose the latter.

Since then, veganism has helped me understand how complex the world of agriculture and food really is. When you start to become more mindful of what you’re putting in your body and how it got there it forces you to reassess your worldview.

You can imagine my enormous confusion and ambivalence in class when my professor mentioned that in fact, a plant-based diet is not the most sustainable, but rather, a high-fructose diet. Apparently, the cost of transporting all the fruits and veggies takes so many resources that in the end, the carbon footprint was just as bad as eating meat…

To Google! I proclaimed, as I opened my laptop to verify or refute – whichever came first – what was said.  The only thing I could find relating to high-fructose diets was a paper arguing that beet sugar was a more efficient use of land and water than cane sugar, and the rest supported the veganism and vegetarianism were the most sustainable – far more sustainable than eating meat.

However, I don’t think my professor is wrong. I do believe that transportation must have enormous impact on our resources, especially if people on the East Coast want avocados from California to be stocked in the supermarket year-round. Sure, it makes sense that eating nothing but Fritos would likely have a low-carbon footprint (I actually know of someone who did this), and perhaps even lower still would simply be to not eat anything! There we go. Anorexia is the lowest carbon-footprint diet. I’ve solved it. 

But you can see where this argument becomes really annoying. We have to find a compromise between reducing our negative and over-consumptive impact toward the environment as much as possible, without jeopardizing our personal health. We have to still talk in the realm of what’s reasonable.

Eating locally is perhaps the best way to ensure that transportation for food is diminished, while also enjoying a whole variety of foods that are healthy and available depending on the season. The individual can choose whether he or she wants to incorporate meat or dairy into their diet – we cannot regulate that. But, I think some enforcement should be made to eat plants and animals that are locally grown or raised. It’s time to educate people on the impact of their diets and encourage a healthier population and planet along the way. After all, species adapt to their changing environment for the sake of their own survival. Humans are no different.  

Works Cited

Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. Dir. Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn. Perf. Howard Lyman, Michal Pollan. 2014. Film.

Klenk, Ingo, Birgit Landquist, and Oscar Ruiz De Imaña. The Product Carbon Footprint of EU Beet Sugar. Rep. no. 137. N.p.: Sugar Industry Journal, March-April 2012. Print.