Meat Versus Miles: Why Less Meat is Better Than Going Local

I thought I'd share with my readers a few fascinating numbers that demonstrate the enormous environmental value of a low-meat diet.

1) Replacing your red meat intake with chicken, fish or eggs for just one day per week has a carbon equivalent impact of driving 760 miles less per year.

2) Switching to a vegetarian diet for just one day per week has a carbon equivalent impact of driving 1,160 miles less per year.

3) Switching from a standard American diet to a vegetarian diet has a carbon equivalent impact of driving 8,000 miles less per year.

4) Switching to 100% local diet has a carbon equivalent impact of driving 1,000 miles less per year.

Here's the thing. Lots of people are talking these days about their efforts to eat local. Some people go so far as to wear their locavorism on their sleeve like it's some kind of honor badge. And, yes, admittedly, even here at Casual Kitchen we advocate being mindful about any transport costs implicit in the food you buy.

But if you think through the numbers above, you can see that going local isn't the best thing you can do for the environment. Not by a long shot. You can go meatless for just one day a week and have a more meaningful impact. Best of all, it's also a great way to save money and add to the overall healthfulness of your diet. What's not to like?

Okay, let me share one more statistic, perhaps the most sobering of all:

5) According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world's livestock sector generates more CO2 equivalent emissions than the entire transportation sector (see specifically page xxi in the Executive Summary).

Yes, you can certainly help the environment by buying your food locally, and I encourage you to continue doing so. But keep in mind that the transport industry is less wasteful and less awful for the environment than you might think.

What's truly wasteful is the enormous amount of meat in the standard Western diet.

Readers, what are your thoughts and reactions?

* Points 1-4 come from Kate Heyhoe's exceptional book Cooking Green (by the way,
I reviewed Cooking Green last year and strongly recommend it to readers).
* Point 5 comes from "Livestock's Long Shadow" a 2006 report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Related Posts:
Six Good Things About the Awful Economy
Almost Meatless: Cookbook Review
Review: Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto

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Emmy said...

In the last few months, since reading books like Omnivore's Dilemma and watching movies like Food Inc, it's hard to eat beef and not see a CAFO in my head. We're eating lots of eggs and dairy from responsible sources. But our intake of red meat has gone WAY down, and pork has almost disappeared. Certainly, being more informed is pushing us toward vegetarianism. Kind of backwards, rather than industrial foods making us eat more of their products, their practices are causing us to eat less. Wonder if they'll ever catch on?

Julia said...

Emily raises an interesting point. I wonder the difference in environmental impact in eating responsibly/sustainably raised meat vs. CAFO meat. Animals raised by folks like Joel Salatin (from Food Inc.) probably have a positive impact on the environment.

Diane said...

Interesting, but the reason I try to eat local has nothing to do with carbon. It is to support my local farmers, local economic diversity, and because the local food tends to be fresher & better.

I also don't eat much meat, but don't see this as an either/or.

Kasie said...

Interesting argument!

I think the answer is to do both -- eat local, sustainably-raised meat, and you'll almost certainly eat less of it. It's quite a bit more expensive (though more filling and nutritious than what's raised in CAFOs), so most people will by financial necessity eat less if they go this route.

Also, I think meat raised using natural practices tends to generate fewer CO2 equivalent emissions than what's raised in a CAFO though I don't have any stats to back that up. They're usually raised in a way that's beneficial to the land they're raised on and the other animals on the farm. It's all about mutually beneficial relationships while the animal is living.

Kira said...

I agree with Kasie. Lately I've been trying to eat, if not local, at least more sustainably-sourced meat. It's more expensive. Therefore we eat less of it. After going pescetarian for Lent, this wasn't a hard switch to make.

Fernando said...

so, switch to vegetarianism and eat local... there you have it.

Anonymous said...

2) Switching to a vegetarian diet for just one day per week has a carbon equivalent impact of driving 1,160 miles less per year.


3) Switching from a standard American diet to a vegetarian diet has a carbon equivalent impact of driving 8,000 miles less per year.

I don't know how these numbers are calculated. But assuming 365 days in a year, as per point 2, shouldn't going vegetarian save us the carbon equivalent of driving 423,400 miles per year?

Daniel said...

No, because the figures are in per week terms. Increasing from one vegetarian day per week to being a full-time vegetarian means you go from one veggie day (per week) to seven veggie days (again, per week). That explains why the miles saved are about seven times as much (1,160 x 7 is roughly 8,000).

Hope that explains it.


chacha1 said...

As a dedicated and increasingly-adventurous carnivore, I still try to have one day a week without meat. It's pretty easy to do, really ... yogurt & granola for breakfast, vegetable lasagna for lunch, and braised cabbage with onion and gorgonzola, or a big Caesar salad, for dinner. For us it is more about variety and nutrition than carbon.

However, environmental concerns are valid criteria for choosing our meat products, which is why we get most of our meat (and eggs) now from Whole Foods or the farmer's market.

We are just lucky that cost isn't really a consideration.

Ada Cole said...

As several people have said, this post gives an incomplete picture. It is generally accepted that grass-fed beef have a net positive impact on the environment and sequesters carbon. And by "Generally Accepted" I mean "in Time Magazine."

The problem is CAFO beef that is fed corn that is raised with petroleum-based fertilizers.

It is extremely important to differentiate between different products when you're making grandiose statements about us "honor badge" locavores, because we know our stuff.

SaladFace said...

Interesting post, and I do agree with the merits on which this post was created. I think that it's important to do what we can to benefit the environment, however...

I disagree that the amount of meat in our diets has nothing to do with "Western". I ate a traditional meal prepared by Ethiopian women last night...And wouldn't you know, 4 out of the 5 dishes they prepared had meat in them. Look at some of the most polluted areas in the world, you'll find that very few of them are in the US. I have no problem with the US attempting to lead, but don't expect the world to follow.

Jenmenke said...

Are you familiar with the Meatless Monday campaign? Our family is taking part (I'm making them). As meat lovers it's been hard, but also very fun. I write about it every week and you wouldn't believe how many friend and family have decided to take part.

jessica barcomb said...

I hope that one day soon we'll go back to having more and more local farms, where people can eat grass-fed beef, have fresh eggs, chicken and vegetables. We'd all be so much healthier, as would the environment! The chickens would also largely take care of this awful tick problem in the NE! I agree-going meatless one day a week is a good way to go; but also echo that grass-fed beef is mutually sustainable for the environment and its farm (it's corporate farming practices that are the problem). Joel Salatin has some great bks. abt. farming my husband picks up re: that topic.

varigatedgreen said...

really enjoyed the information (in miles) in this article and, in fact, your site. I have linked to it (the article) from my blog, hope that's okay. Nice job.

Adam said...

This article is excellent, in that it points out the counter-intuitive nature of meat consumption vs. transportation. However, to calculate my own impact, I need more data - how much meat is consumed in an "average american diet" If I go "meatless" for a day, how much meat am I supposed to be giving up? How does the CO2 impact of beef compare to pork compare to chicken, etc?

(Basically, I'd like to know how many pounds of CO2 equal a pound of meat, for different types of meat - do you have this information?)

Daniel said...

Adam, take a look at the link to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that I talk about in point 5), especially section 3.2, which is called "Livestock in the Carbon Cycle." Also take a look at table 3.6, which is on page 19 of the report. I think you'll find a lot of the data you're looking for.


nicole said...

Buying locally isn't only about transport concerns for most people, as you can see from the comments, and certainly the amount of land destroyed (or changed) used in CAFO's mixed with the sheer numbers of animals on these industrial farms is the real issue it's the number two highest cause of CO2 emissions.

Supporting local farmers is important for raising awareness in the corporate food industry. It helps their sales go down, and ultimately their productivity, which is a great way to tell the government it's time to change their policies. And that to me is where the differences will be made.

nicole said...

But it's true, go veg and eat local and you've got yourself a match made in heaven. now if only we could fix this soy problem...

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

Late to the commenting game, but I have to chime in with Diane, Kasie and Ada Cole. It's tempting to focus on only one aspect, but carbon is just one piece of the puzzle. How animals are raised completely changes the game. As does watching where your dollar goes.

Also, we need to consider the working conditions of big ag meat processing plants. I'm going to blog a bit about that myself, but my suggestion to folks is this: Eat naturally (that is, grass fed), sustainably, locally-raised meats in moderation. If you can't afford to do so, you can't afford to eat meat.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the great insights, I'm grateful for the excellent (and extremely civil) conversation.

One thought I think I should make clear: Don't interpret this post to mean that I think you should give up on eating local. That's not my point at all. Just because one thing is more effective than another doesn't mean you can't do both.

Think of this post as a type of 80/20 Rule for environmental mindfulness. If eating just slightly less meat a week can be this laughably easy to do, and this effective, why not try it and reap the benefits (and save money too)?

Those of you who are already eating less meat and also minding other aspects of your carbon footprint, keep doing what you're doing.


Fozzy Bear said...

I'm sorry, but in this case just adding up carbon emissions is misleading, because you are only looking at the atmosphere, not the biosphere.

Livestock don't create carbon, it just passes through them as part of a cycle that ultimately adds no new carbon to the atmosphere. The only nett addition of carbon to the biosphere comes from mining fossil fuels, everything else just recycles carbon that is already in the biosphere.

Daniel said...


I hear you on carbon specifically. But the calculus behind livestock also includes methane. The reason many climate scientists have such concerns with livestock is because the methane they produce (let's not go into how exactly, this is a family blog after all) is seen as a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2.

Further, the production, slaughter and transport of meat for consumption in the marketplace consumes significant fossil fuels.

This is the logic that supports why we should take a hard look at our meat consumption and the impact it has on the environment.


little les said...

Hey little brother! glad to see you're still able to get a good conversation going - nice job! Now what about the methane produced in my living room by a certain brown furry beast? :^D

Anonymous said...

On our camping vacation road trip to CO from MN this summer, we drove by an awful lot of CAFOs right along I80. And suddenly DH agreed that we need to switch to local beef cause of the stink. We are eating very diligently through the chest freezer so we will have room for our 1/4 of a cow in 2 months (they tend to butcher in late oct/early nov here).

We are trying to reduce our meat consumption and as lots of friends/family are veggie that really helps, we still like our meat

Pictures can motivate people, but that smell from the CAFO did a heck of a lot more for us.