New Research Says Vegetarian Diets Could Actually Be Worse for the Planet

Now, scientists are saying that lettuce is actually three times worse for the planet than bacon. What the hell is going on?

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Dec 16 2015, 12:00am

Photo via Flickr user Sonny Abesamis

In the immortal words of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, all the food is poison. Nothing edible is safe, and everything is bad for you. And for the environment. And for humanity.

With this in mind, many citizens of Earth still make well-meaning but ultimately pitiful attempts to devise diets for themselves that are truly healthful, minimally detrimental to the planet, and ideally not blindingly cruel to animals. Even the United Nations has insisted that veganism could serve as a counterpoint to the Standard American Diet of chili cheese fries and double bacon burgers and possibly save us from imminent world destruction.

The argument goes like this: eating meat is ridiculously inefficient and requires staggering amounts of resources. Processing those resources also requires a whole shitload of energy, and this whole grand production releases much of the greenhouse gas emissions that are turning Earth into a slowly melting Popsicle overrun with sad cows and hungry human babies.

The aforementioned UN report from 2010 arguing in favor of meat- and dairy-free diets stated that animal products account for a whopping 70 percent of global freshwater consumption, 38 percent of total land use, and 19 percent of all humanity's carbon emissions. The solution: improve efficiency in agricultural production in order to counterbalance the coming flux of even more people crowding the Earth, and do so by switching out our meat-heavy diets for ones that favor plants. You know: produce, grains, fruit, that kinda stuff.

There's just one problem: researchers are now saying that vegetarian and so-called "healthy" diets are actually worse for the planet. Sorry, Arnie.

READ: Arnold Schwarzenegger Says Eating Less Meat Can Help to Curb Climate Change

A team from Carnegie Mellon University—not exactly a shady institution—has published a new report in Environment Systems and Decisions arguing that vegetarian diets contribute more to climate change than your standard omnivorous fare. Carnegie Mellon researchers even say that updated USDA recommendations—which emphasize cutting back on meat and consuming more fruits, vegetables, and seafood—are encouraging citizens to inadvertently use more resources and thus cause more "emissions per calorie."

That's the crucial concept here: calories.

Raising a pig obviously requires far more resources than raising a few heads of iceberg lettuce. But this is the larger issue: ten pounds of pork feeds a lot more people than ten pounds of lettuce. You have to eat a lot more lettuce to feel full than you do pork fat. And therein lies the issue.

Photo via Flickr user Val D'Aquila

Hey it's me, bacon! Give up and eat me! Photo via Flickr user Val D'Aquila

The study looked at US food consumption patterns and measured their energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water needs. Initially, the team hoped to examine how America's obesity epidemic was impacting the environment, taking into consideration farming, processing, and transportation, as well as even more complex factors such as product sales, food service, and even how we store these foods in our pantries.

But when everything was tallied up, it wasn't looking great for all the kale-munching, clean-eating freaks on Instagram.

Paul Fischbeck, professor of social decisions sciences and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, said in a statement, "Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon."

You can all go home now. Everything is wrong. Up is down.

"Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think," he continued. "Eggplant, celery, and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken."

Before you get off your couch and stuff your face with a baker's dozen of bacon-wrapped hot dogs, consider this: maintaining a healthy weight and consuming fewer calories in general is a good thing. It's good for your body, it's good for our old pal Earth, and it's good for your forlorn girlfriend who has been worried that you're letting yourself go. Researchers want you to know this. In fact, if we Americans could stop being such fat-asses, it would cut our greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water use by about 9 percent.

READ: This Government Report Warns that Climate Change Is Going to Screw Up Global Food Security

But subbing out all meat in favor of fruits, veggies, dairy, and seafood increases our carbon emissions by 6 percent, our water usage by 10 percent, and our energy use by a rather harrowing 38 percent. Oh dear.

"There's a complex relationship between diet and the environment," said researcher Michelle Tom. "What is good for us health-wise isn't always what's best for the environment."

So, in summary, everything will kill us, and all the food is poison. And don't forget: vegetables are going to melt the ice caps and drown us all, and meat gives you cancer. Enjoy your dinner!