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Less Meat or More Local Food? Sustainability Calls for Both

Raz Godelnik
| Monday July 18th, 2011 | 3 Comments

Last month Andrew Winston wrote about Weber and Matthews’ article from 2008, ‘Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States’. Winston saw the article as an eye-opening piece for anyone interested in maximizing the efficiency of carbon footprint reduction efforts. “Just moving away from meat for one day a week is more effective than buying everything you eat locally” he concluded from the article. In other words – if you’re an eco-conscious eater, farmers markets might still be a good place for you to hang out, but if you really want to make a difference – just buy less red meat.

So does it mean that it’s ok for me to adopt Meatless Monday and instead go to Costco and buy myself bananas from Costa Rica, tomatoes from Florida, neatly packaged apples in a plastic wrap from Washington and green peas from California? It’s definitely going to be a healthier lunch, but will it actually make my eating more sustainable? I doubt.

It’s not that eating less meat is not important for both your health and the environment, or that Weber and Matthews got it wrong in their life cycle analysis. Both are right. It’s just that putting these two options one against another instead of putting them together in one comprehensive solution is the wrong way to look at the issues in our food system.  The food system in the U.S. is broken for many reasons and focusing on just one problem (i.e. its carbon footprint) and ignoring the others will be just like fixing one part in a broken engine and hoping the car will start working again. Well, it won’t.

This approach of looking only at one layer of a complex problem is a reflection of the tendency to look at sustainability only through environmental lens, ignoring the other pillars of sustainability – social, economic and cultural. As Adam Werbach wrote in his book ‘Strategy for Sustainability’, “green strategy is not a strategy for sustainability.” A true sustainability strategy is one that addresses all pillars of sustainability, no matter if you try to apply it the auto industry, the financial sector, or the food system.

Don’t get me wrong. Eating less meat will surely reduce the food system’s carbon footprint as well as other environmental impacts, such as water pollution, fossil fuel dependence, land degradation and loss of biodiversity. At the same time it will not necessarily tackle the obesity epidemic in the US, solve the problem of food deserts, improve the lax food safety standards or make the food system any less industrialized or centralized. This is because some of the issues don’t relate directly to red meat consumption and also because what you eventually choose to eat is as important as what you choose not to eat.

The same goes to local food. It offers a long list of benefits, from assisting local economies to enhancing the socio-cultural identity of a region. At the same time the inefficiencies of scale in local distribution systems raise questions about its ability to save energy and reduce emissions. There’s also the question of if local food is necessarily better and safer. If it is produced locally but in conventional agriculture methods, then it embodies most of the adverse environmental impacts associated with industrial agriculture production.

This is why you need a comprehensive sustainable strategy to address the broken food system, one that will try to address and fix most if not all of its illnesses. In such a solution there’s an important place for both strengthening local food systems and reducing meat consumption. They’re like two good soldiers you need to win the war and you don’t ask yourself who to take with you to the battle – you need both to win.

You might wonder how on earth these policy questions are relevant to the individual decision making process. The answer is that the need in a comprehensive solution is similar, no matter if it’s a national or a personal level we’re dealing with. If you choose, for example, to become a weekday vegetarian, but continue to consume processed food, soda drinks, (veggie) fast food and sweets, you won’t do much good to yourself, to your community and the environment, even if you will be able to reduce your food carbon footprint.

This approach is similar to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ approach that “to get the full benefit, individuals should carry out the Dietary Guidelines recommendations in their entirety as part of an overall healthy eating pattern.” If you want to get results, you need to act holistically, or otherwise it just won’t work.

Locavores and supporters of reducing meat consumption are on the same side, the one that tries to fix a broken food system. Comparing them from this point or another is important as we have to act knowledgably, but it shouldn’t distract us from the truly important question, which is how to create a sustainable food system and save America from an efficient yet unsustainable food system that puts too much red meat and too little local food on our plates.

Image credit: Scott Roberts, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.


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  • http://yourfarmstand.com Suzy Hodgson

    While I agree that we need to consider all the facets of our broken conventional food system, local meat can be a more sustainable choice when farmers have pasture-raised animals grazing on perennial grasses. These grasses and soil systems can be a large sink for ghgs when untilled and grazed at sustainable levels. Moreover, small farmers who produce local meat typically have less fossil fuel inputs than conventional farmers. One of the key questions is how the land is used and what are the externalities.

    • http://blogs.technet.com/markaggar Mark Aggar

      Animals are very important for the health of the land. Of course the animal has to be alive to help… :-)

      The issue with even sustainable meat is that it can’t scale to 7 billion people. So I think the key is to eat less meat (i.e. view it as a treat rather than a staple), make sure it’s sustainable (organic, grass finished), and preferably local. Meat is so damaging to our health and the environment I think the first two are a must. For this reason, I would hope that people who tout the virtues of sustainable meat don’t eat factory farmed meat when sustainable meat is unavailable (which means being virtually vegetarian when eating out).

      The bulk of our diets should be plant-based, preferably sustainable (organic), unprocessed, and local.

      Generally I think sustainable organic is more important than local if the local producer uses pesticides (some don’t, so it’s worth asking if you can.

  • http://www.foodsprout.com linda chang

    Agreed, there is no easy fix and carbon footprinting is only one piece of a very messy and complex puzzle. As with much around sustainability analyses, it seems impossible to put hard boundaries around the entire system. Each input/output and its messy trail tumbles into system after system. So how does an individual choose to act? Are you really going to give up coffee or chocolate so that you can minimize your carbon footprint while not providing a market for something that someone can produce with greater competitive advantage than yourself? The entire discussion then raises the promises and pitfalls of globalization and a more connected planet. I don’t have solid answers. But mapping the system inputs/outputs and trying to empower more individuals than not with that information might go a long way toward doing just that. I am wondering a lot, however, if arming people with various types of metrics helps or harms the efforts. We’re going to try a few things with FoodSprout, but it’s all a big experiment.