Eat What You Want While Questioning 'Food Sustainability' Claims
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Earth Day started 50 years ago, and if you judge the event by society’s environmental conscientiousness, it’s been a success. Today, people are increasingly considering the environmental impact of products they buy. That’s true not just of cars and clothing, but also what we eat. 

A survey last year found that 37% of consumers look for sustainability claims on food. Food marketers have taken note, increasing the number of food products with eco claims. But buyers should beware: Not all food sustainability claims are true. 

Perhaps the single most common claim you’ll hear today about food is that meat is bad for the environment. Ads for plant-based fake meat commonly assert this. These claims are parroted by animal rights activists who–naturally–don’t like people eating meat. You can even find a few documentaries that try to paint meat as eco-unfriendly.

But is eating meat actually bad for the environment? No. 

A frequently cited statistic is that 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture. But what you may not know is that this figure doesn’t apply to the US, where we have the most advanced modern agricultural technology in the world. 

American agriculture has become economically and environmentally more efficient over time. For instance, we need 60% fewer cows yet produce twice as much milk as we did in the 1930s.

The EPA tracks greenhouse gas emissions and reports them by sector. According to the EPA, all of our agriculture only accounts for about 9% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, while animal agriculture accounts for only about 4%. That’s why researchers estimate that if the entire U.S. population went vegan tomorrow, it would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by less than 3%. That also means, as an individual, giving up meat will have zero impact on curbing climate change. 

It turns out that producing plant-based fake meats actually produces the same amount of emissions as producing chicken. And cell-cultured meat–that is, grown from cells in a lab setting–has five times the emissions of regular chicken.

Why? Because while making fake meat may use less land than raising chickens, it uses much more electricity to power all those factories that make fake meat. 

“Organic” is another term that many consumers look for, thinking organic food is better for the environment and their health. Once again, reality is different from perception. 

A recent study of organic vs. modern agriculture on different factors such as land use, climate, over-fertilization, and energy use. Modern farming was superior on land use while organic farming was better on chemicals. Overall, the two compared equally on most factors. 

(Most consumers also believe that organic food is more nutritious. But once again, scientific research has found there’s no real difference.)

The biggest environmental impact associated with food isn’t about the food we eat. It is actually about food we don’t eat.

The USDA estimates that up to one-third of food produced in the country is thrown away. Whether that’s meat or fake meat, or organic produce or non-organic produce, that food took resources to grow and fuel to transport. And all of those resources go to waste when you don’t finish your meal or throw out the leftovers. 

What’s the lesson? Eat what you want and ignore the marketing claims. In the big picture, anyone’s diet has a small footprint. But whatever you choose to eat, make sure you don’t let it go to waste.

Jack Hubbard is Executive Director of the Center for the Environment and Welfare. 

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