The Vegan Mythbusting series uses science to debunk propaganda against veganism.
If I had a penny for every time someone said to me, "Eating local meat is better than eating vegan", I'd have... a lot of money.
Have you ever heard, "Fruits and vegetables travel 1500 miles before getting to your plate"? 1,500 miles. One thousand five hundred miles. Where did this number come from, anyway? NYT ran it. Time wrote about it. Newsweek mentioned it. If you were like most people, you'd think that if NYT said it, it's gotta be true. (But you're not like most people. You're smart. That's why you are reading TFV instead of NYT.)
Back in 2001, a researcher named Rich Pirog from Iowa State University was studying the freshness of 23 kinds of fruit and vegetable produce at Iowa markets. Pirog was trying to find out, "How fresh is the produce at community markets in the upper Midwest", not "What's the environmental impact of vegans on the world's environment." He didn't even account for produce at supermarket chains like Walmart. For whatever reason, this highly localized study was picked up by a chef (not an investigative journalist) writing an op-ed (not a report) at NYT (possibly to take a dig at vegans) and the "1,500 miles" figure has become gospel truth for meat lovers wanting to sound "sciencey". That's life.
"Food miles are a good measure of how far food has traveled. But they're not a very good measure of the food's environmental impact." Guess who said this? None other than Rich Pirog himself.
Of course, on the face of it, eating local is better for the environment. If you live in California, eat almonds from California instead of almonds from Egypt. If you live in India, it's better (and healthier) to eat apples cultivated in the Himalayas, rather than those imported from Australia. But the answer isn't always so straightforward. For instance, if you live in Northern Europe, what is better for the environment: importing oranges in bulk from the tropics, or cultivating them in electrified greenhouses? (answer: importing). What should you buy: wheat trucked from a farm 100 km away, or transported by rail from 800 km away? (answer: by rail). So if we're comparing two sources of the same kind of food, the answer is "Local is better. Usually." Eating local is a great way of supporting your community, but it's got little to do with environmentally responsible consumption.
And that is why it makes no sense to use food miles as a measure for two different kinds of food, such as meat and fruit. Meat and dairy production are almost never environmentally sustainable. In fact, even if your bananas were trucked to ports from plantations in Nigeria, then shipped across the Atlantic, and then flown to Oregon and trucked again to Safeway, they'd still have a lower carbon footprint than "local, grass-fed" cuts of Angus.
Consider the production of milk. The cow that produces the milk has to be fed grain all year, or raised on pasture. The pasture takes up land that could otherwise have supported a healthy ecosystem, which worsens the greenhouse effect. Cultivating feed - lots of it - uses fertilizers, whose production needs fossil fuels. The cows are kept in temperature-regulated enclosures. The antibiotics they require need to be manufactured and transported. Their milk needs to be pasteurized, packaged, refrigerated and transported. The nitrates and wastes produced in dairy production wash out to the sea and kill phytoplankton, which further exacerbates the greenhouse effect. The cows release methane (CH4), which is 23 times more potent than the CO2 released by vehicles, and nitrous oxide (N2O), which is a whopping 296 times more destructive as CO2! Even something as seemingly benign as dairy production destroys the local environment and worsens climate change, in ways that plant cultivation never could. As for meat production ... need we go there?
If you're looking for data, you need look no further than a 2008 study called "Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States" by C. L. Weber and H. S. Matthews from the Carnegie Mellon University. It pertains to the United States, but the results can guide conscientious food purchases, no matter where you live. Unlike the much quoted "1,500 miles" and "Swedish breakfast travels a distance twice the circumference of the Earth" statistics, this study looked, not simply at the distance food travels, but a complete life-cycle analysis of each major type of food, down to the environmental impact of its ingredients.
Weber and Matthews found that although "food miles" contribute to the carbon footprint, an average of 83% of a food product's carbon footprint is caused during production. Transportation accounts for only 11% of the product's greenhouse gas emissions. So the positive impact of switching to a vegan diet is many times greater than that of "buying local".
But if you still want to cling to the "food miles" bogey, Weber and Matthews also found that, accounting for inputs like feed, antibiotics, etc., red meat travels a total of 20,400 km (12676 miles), of which just 1800 km (1118 miles) are during final delivery from the processing facility to the retail store. So there.
In fact, even if someone avoided red meat and dairy for just one day a week (but still ate chicken, fish and eggs), they will be doing more to mitigate climate change than someone who buys all their food locally, but eats all kinds of meat.
Needless to say, chicken production is responsible for releasing 3 times more greenhouse gases than soy and 7 times more than lentils, kills billions of beautiful, intelligent birds each year, and wastes precious fertile land and fresh water. Eating fish is perhaps even worse, as fishing is destroying our oceans, which are critically important to our world. Eating a vegan diet will have the most potent impact on mitigating climate change, while also protecting our biodiversity and environment in every other way.
It's basic human nature to find someone else to blame for the world's problems. Most people would have trouble accepting that their buying habits are destroying Nature. No one wants to be part of the problem, and it's easier to deflect blame than change our habits. Unfortunately, our planet cannot afford ignorance and inaction. There's simply too much at stake, and each seemingly insignificant contribution toward protecting our Earth adds up, creating a better future for us and all other life forms - just as each carelessly tossed plastic bag, faucet left running, and an occasional cheeseburger kills our planet just a little bit more.
Perhaps, it's time to stop blame games - stop blaming people in other third-world countries, stop blaming people who buy at supermarkets, stop taking vapid pride in "eating local, grass-fed, humane meat", and do what we must do, within our capabilities, to protect our world. Nobody is perfect, including vegans. But at the very least, we must all do everything we can to educate ourselves and take well-informed, impactful decisions as individuals and as communities, rather than clinging to make-believe notions and crossing our fingers.
Eating local is great. It supports the local economy. It creates a personal, intimate bond with the food we eat, and the land we live on. It's an excellent way to eat fresh, delicious produce. But being a "locavore" is no substitute for being vegan.
For further reading, refer to this easy-to-read, free report: Fair Miles - recharting the food miles map.
*Note: I was working on a vegan project that took many months of dedicated focus, so I was away from contributing for a bit. But I'll be writing much more often now.
Pirog, R., Van Pelt, T., Cook, E. (2001), "Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions". Available at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/pubs-and-papers/2011-06-food-fuel-and-freeways-iowa-perspective-how-far-food-travels-fuel-usage-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions.pdf
Weber, C. L., & Matthews, H. S. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental science & technology, 42(10), 3508-3513. Available at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es702969f
Photo credit: RG Transport Inc.: https://www.rgtransport.com/our-company