My wife and I have been (sort of) vegetarian for twenty years now. I say “sort of” because we do eat fish regularly, and we’re not obsessive about avoiding foods that might have animal stock in them. More simply, we avoid eating meat. However I often find it hard to explain this to people, partly because it doesn’t seem to fit with anyone’s standard notion of vegetarianism. Reaction tend to fall somewhere between being weirded out by the idea of a diet that’s not based on meat to a detailed quizzing of how I decide which creatures I’m willing to eat. The trouble is, our decision to avoid meat isn’t based on a concern for animals at all.

The reason we went meat-free many years ago was threefold: it’s cheaper, healthier and better for the planet. Once we’d done it, we also found ourselves eating a more varied and flavourful diet, but that was really just a nice side-effect.

The “better for the planet” part was based on several years of reading about issues in global equity and food production, which I have found hard to explain to people in a succinct way. In other words, yes, it would require me to be boring for an entire evening’s dinner party, which I would prefer not to do.

Now I can explain it much more succinctly, with just one graph (h/t to Neil for this):


  1. Nice. I’m currently going through Mike Berners-Lee’s “How Bad are Bananas”, and I found there’s one additional point to bring up here: where your food comes from and how was it grown matters a lot, too. So for instance, in this graph, tomatoes do pretty good. And they *are* pretty good, assuming you get them in season and fairly locally. If you get them air-freighted or locally from hot houses, which is almost certainly what you need to do out of season, they’re one of the most carbon intensive foods there are.

  2. Nice to see a graph like this, but as Jorge has already noted, it really doesn’t tell the whole story. Tuna performs better than other meats on this graph, presumably not taking into account the overwhelming and unsustainable fishing practices done to get the meat. While the overfishing may not emit a lot of carbon directly — I’d expect that the effect on the ocean’s ecosystems — and hence their role as a carbon sink — would be quite significant.

  3. @Elizabeth: yeah, carbon footprint analysis really addresses only a small part of the sustainability question. Somewhere I have a leaflet that lists all the different fish, and suggests which ones to avoid and which ones to eat, based on a variety of sustainability factors. But I never have it ready to hand when I’m ordering dinner, and it’s too complex to memorize. Oh, and then the waitstaff can’t reliably answer the questions anyway (e.g. is your shrimp farmed or wild?).

    I think the order of magnitude lessons in a graph like the one above matter, as does the attempt to increase awareness of how destructive some of our food production industries are. The detail in the graph? No so much.

    In the long run, most of these problems can never be solved by relying on individuals to make informed choices. The destructive practices need to be stopped by some combination of regulation and tax penalties.

  4. Great article by Monbiot on Simon Fairlie’s book – which consists of “not arguments against all meat eating, but arguments against the current farming model.”

    I’m vege myself, but dimly aware that animals are an integral part of most (all?) agro-ecologically viable food production systems (i.e. those not propped up by petrochemicals). That said, the problem is complex, and I worry about this sort of polarising: ” `Industrialised World’ of standardised-generic production… associated with commercialism, efficiency and branding’ versus an ‘Interpersonal World’ of specialised-dedicated production… associated with trust, local renown, and spatial embeddedness.” (Morgan, Marsden & Murdoch 2006, p.22)

    Nasty vs fluffy… doesn’t necessarily help analyse the problem, but it’s how a lot of people think about the food system. E.g. transition movement: massively biased towards food issues, but rarely if ever considers it as an economic problem, which – as well as being an ecological and social problem – it definitely is.

  5. But do you eat cheese? I did, a lot, when I was vegetarian.

  6. Wonderful presentation. Thanks. Also some foods are chemically intensive. Some leave a toxic after-glow I hear that farmed shrimp can ruin lands after a few harvests.

    Mushrooms might be best, since they feast on anything and don’t need chemical support.

    Data visualization is nicely done, more please.

  7. Nice visualisation, but it leaves me asking, whats so bad about lamb?

    Being Irish, conditions here are fairly benign, and sheep and cattle are left out in the pasture for a lot longer than other countries (I don’t believe Irish sheep are ever housed / fed indoors, cattle are in the wintertime), so the cost is purely pasture: how come the CO2 cost is so high?

  8. @Alastair McKinstry

    I’m not an expert, but again from Berners-Lee’s book, lamb is particularly bad because (a) like cows, sheep ruminate, so they belch lots of methane, and (b) they’re very inefficient at converting food into meat—partly because they’re out in the pasture and in the hills, going up and down, a lot of the time.

  9. @Jorge Aranda
    Yes, but good luck converting moorland grasses into any other sort of food.

  10. @Nick:
    I think you’re right, but perhaps thats not the best thing to do with moorlands. At least here, they’re fairly efficient CO2 absorbers (its a stong part of the case for preserving bogs in Ireland).
    Perhaps greater intensification of lowland farming is a better bet.

    (I wonder where venison, particularly for reindeer, comes on that graphic?)

    I know, however that various groups such as Teagasc the Irish national agricultural research organisation are working on solutions for ‘the methane problem’. Irish farmers seem confident that they will come up with ‘another magic pouron chemical’ that will solve this problem. (They seem to favour chemical solutions that can be ‘poured on’ the back of cows to solve eg parasites etc. )

  11. Thank you, that is an interesting and informative graph. Something I would find interesting would be the relationship between the carbon dioxide emissions and the caloric food value of those same products. And compare hand and mechanical harvesting values. Which common food products will rank best, or worst?

  12. I really wish they would do this over and compare grams of protein within the various foods: A kilogram of cheese is just not comparable to a kilogram of milk from a nutritional point of view. Once you notice that, many other questions arise. Is eating potatoes better than eating eggs? Only if you don’t mind the thinning hair and lack of concentration that come with a starchy, low-protein diet.

  13. @Liz

    Me too, but it’s complicated: on the nutrition side, we could compare calories, proteins, vitamins, fats, etc etc. On the ecological side, there’s CO2-equivalent emissions, changes in land use, and variations between production at different latitudes. So it may be best to keep it simple, use charts like the one above as a rough approximation, and use your judgment.

  14. Interesting is there a reference to data and how the values were calculated? Why is there such as disparity between lamb and beef on the farm?

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