Environmental Working Group recommends less meat and cheese

By Kamaria Greenfield

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released their findings on the climate impacts of eating twenty different proteins, ranging from lentils to lambs. The data took into account all of the resources put into producing these common foods, a method known as life cycle assessment. One resource that sometimes goes without notice is the production of animal feed, which uses vast amounts of land, water, pesticides, and chemical fertilizer, each of which have their own environmental impact. The study even takes into account the disposal of unused foods post-production.

With this chart, EWG shows how different foods have a different impact on the environment. (Photo credit: EWG)

Lamb, beef, and pork were the three meats with the highest carbon footprint, but cheese ranked third worst overall.  Two percent milk, by contrast, ranked third best. This discrepancy is caused by the intensive production of cheese. “It takes about ten pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese,” said Kari Hamerschlag, author of the report. To give the data more real-world impact, a colorful chart shows the footprint of each food in terms of car miles driven per four ounces consumed. Lamb, the highest, is more than seven miles for each portion eaten.

Lentils, tomatoes, milk, and beans were the four best proteins, each contributing a fraction of one mile per four ounce serving. Chicken, the most environmentally-friendly land animal on the list, comes in at about 1.75 miles. Tuna is much better than chicken, but salmon, especially farmed salmon, is slightly worse. Smaller, plant-eating fish like tilapia, not listed, have a smaller impact because they are lower on the food chain.

Rather than promoting strict vegetarianism or veganism, the EWG instead points out the American over-consumption of meat and suggests a reduction in portion sizes. In 2009, the United States produced 208 pounds of meat per person for domestic consumption alone, almost 60 percent more than Europe. Additionally, the study states that eliminating meat and cheese from one meal a week for a year would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

The findings of this study reflect a movement towards the awareness of dietary excesses, seen already in campaigns like Meatless Monday, documentaries like Food, Inc., and books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Although only a small part of mitigating climate change, the benefits of adopting a greener diet are undeniable.

Kamaria Greenfield is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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