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When a Vegan Diet Has a Lower Carbon Footprint. And When It Doesn’t.  RSS feed

 
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Paul and I have been hard at work on our book. We have one little section of one chapter left to write. Just a little section, but one that seems super important so we're spending a lot of time trying to get it right.

One of the big problems that we tackle in the book is carbon footprint. We talk about solutions that we can implement at home and in our backyard that make a huge impact in this space. Solutions that could go so far as to entirely offset our carbon footprint. Or even put it in the minus.

Paul and I recently watched "Cowspiracy." In this movie they suggested that the #1 best thing you can do for the environment is to become a vegan. I think that the movie raised some very good points, but I also think that it drew the wrong conclusions from those points.

Before I go any further, I want to say explicitly that I am totally 100% okay with it if people choose to eat a vegan diet. No problem. That's going to be the best option for some people - for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, I think that it is not going to be the best option for all people - for all sorts of reasons. So let's explore how a vegan can lower their carbon footprint and how an omnivore can lower their carbon footprint without becoming a vegan.

Maybe someone will someday throw millions of dollars at in-depth (somehow unbiased) research into this. Until then, please excuse me while I ramble away with some numbers, some of which might be a bit squishy.

The biggest claim made in the movie was that livestock and their byproducts cause at least 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. I have all sorts of things I wish to say about this, but instead I want to share a quote from this article which is written by Danny Chivers, a climate change researcher who is also a vegan:

There’s only one problem with this eye-grabbing stat: it’s a load of manure. Emissions from livestock agriculture – including the methane from animals’ digestive systems, deforestation, land use change and energy use – make up around 15 per cent of global emissions, not 51 per cent. I’ve been vegan for 14 years and have been asked to justify my dietary weirdness at more friend and family meals than I can count, so believe me – I’ve looked into it. If meat and dairy really were the biggest cause of global climate change I’d be trumpeting that statistic myself every chance I got.



There were a whole bunch of other numbers shared during the movie but it felt like the main thrust of the whole argument was this 51% figure. So it seems to me that it's a bit of a blow to their argument to say that their big point was drastically exaggerated by a factor of more than 3.

A big point that they were making in the movie is that everyone is focused on fossil fuels and reducing fossil fuels to reduce carbon footprint. And they were trying to point out that no one ever brings up animal agriculture, which they claimed was an even bigger factor. I think that we've already seen that there are some issues with the numbers, but I think it's good to remember as well that a lot of the emissions from conventional animal agriculture are also from fossil fuels used for feed production and transportation.

Still, even though I disagree with their numbers, I am thankful that they are trying to draw attention to the fact that our food has a footprint. Because that's not talked about nearly often enough. In this thread I talked about how, after many hours of debate, Paul and I agreed that if you consider all direct and indirect sources, food might make up 35% of all carbon emissions, which I think does put food at the #1 most important thing to work on - just not in the way that the movie suggests.

The average adult footprint in America is 30 tons. 35% of that is 10.5 tons. Given the significant proportion of people who follow the Standard American Diet (SAD), I think it is fair to say that the food footprint of the average person on the SAD is 10.5 tons per year.

Next, let’s look at the vegan diet, keeping in mind that a vegan diet can consist of diet cola and “cookies” just as much as the SAD. It just swaps out animal products for plant-based proteins. One of the more powerful things that some vegans like to point out (though surprisingly Cowspiracy did not), is that with conventional agriculture it takes roughly 10 calories of animal feed to produce 1 calorie of animal food. And that feed has roughly the same direct footprint as conventional agriculture-raised human food.

To massively oversimplify, let’s say that 30% of an omnivore’s diet comes from animal products. That way, if a vegan diet is 100 units of footprint, an omnivore diet is 70 + 10*30 = 370 units of footprint. The direct (and some of the indirect) footprints are almost 4 times greater! Unfortunately, a huge portion of food footprint comes from indirect sources, most of which are not significantly affected by whether or not the food is animal-based or plant-based. Looking at the figures and trying to be generous in the direction of the vegans, my rough estimate would be that switching from the SAD to a vegan diet could cut up to 15% off of the average overall footprint - nearly half of the average food footprint! So where the food footprint of the SAD is 10.5 tons per year, the food footprint of the vegan diet would be around 6 tons per year. That’s pretty significant!

Of course, we can do better than that…

Let’s look at “next step” for omnivores - pastured meat. I’m going to oversimplify by focusing on cows. Researching for this book, I read a section written by Eric Toensmeier in Steve Gabriel’s book “Silvopasture: A Guide to Managing Grazing Animals, Forage Crops, and Trees in a Temperate Farm Ecosystem.” In this section, Mr. Toensmeier shared that there is a lot of skepticism of some of the big claims of managed grazing and silvopasture. To illustrate the points he was making, he chose to use numbers that were 10 times smaller and closer to the “accepted” numbers with the hopes that maybe someday we’ll have enough evidence that it is indeed way better. I’m choosing to do the same here. Using data that Mr. Toensmeier shared from the IPCC in that section, I believe that by switching from grain fed to managed grazing, each person can sequester roughly 0.4 tons of CO2 per year. PLUS! We can also remove almost all of the direct and many of the indirect footprints of raising grain fed animals. Taking these things into consideration, and trying to be conservative, I think that an omnivore eating the SAD except with well managed pastured meat (still bought from a supermarket) would weigh in with a diet footprint of around 4.5 tons per year.

But wait, there’s more! This is permies. This is where we talk about permaculture and working in a symbiotic relationship with nature. It is true that today it’s hard to find permaculture food at the grocery store, but I dream that I may live to see such a day come. As we were working on the book we wanted a new word to label food that is “permaculture food”… but that means a lot of different things to different people. So we came up with “Virgin and strictly Organic and Rich soil and Polyculture/Permaculture” (VORP). And since we made the word up we get to define what it means!

VORP means:
- low processing, low packaging
- foods are grown in aged soil with a high organic matter level
- polyculture of at least 12 species
- harvested with minimal soil disturbance
- harvested by hand (no harvesting by machine)
- human to acre ratio is very high:  more like gardening than farming
- super localized inputs
- minimal irrigation
- seasonal foods
- minimized grafting
- super localized plant and animal varieties
- no cardboard or newspaper in horticultural endeavors
- no pesticides, even OMRI approved pesticides
- growing plants in a space that suits them as opposed to adding fertilizers and using pesticides to force an artificial environment
- pampered animals (bye bye CAFO)


Let’s talk about a world where VORP food is available at the grocery store. I imagine VORP food would come out of something that at least somewhat resembles silvopasture. Silvopasture sequesters at least 3 times the carbon as managed grazing alone, so rather than 0.4 tons of CO2 sequestered per person, we’d be looking at something closer to 1.2 tons. The net direct emissions would be -1.2 tons per person. Further, there would be many further reductions in the indirect emissions category. I think that a person buying VORP food at the grocery store would have a food footprint of around 2 tons per year.

Time to return to the vegans. A vegan diet bought from the store might be around 6 tons per year. If instead vegans would grow most of their own food in their backyard, even if they still use petroleum-based machinery and fertilizers and pesticides and such (all permitted under the vegan umbrella), they will have eliminated a huge portion of the indirect footprint of their diet. So much so that their food footprint could reasonably be less than half a ton per year!

But of course at permies we are trying to get away from all that petroleum-based machinery and fertilizers and pesticides and such. And it gets really cool when you look at the potential footprint of an omnivore’s VORP forest garden… -1 tons per person! Yes that’s right, net sequestration!

To summarize:

dietCO2 equivalent footprint (in tons)
SAD - purchased10.5
vegan - purchased6
SAD w pastured meat - purchased4.5
VORP omni - purchased2
vegan garden0.5
VORP omni forest garden-1


TL;DR

Rather than switching to a vegan diet to lower your carbon footprint, it would be far more impactful to grow your own food.
 
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Looks good. I think it's an important conversation to have.

Is there somewhere on the site where you go over the "Virgin" part of VORP?

-CK
 
Shawn Klassen-Koop
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Chris Kott wrote:Looks good. I think it's an important conversation to have.

Is there somewhere on the site where you go over the "Virgin" part of VORP?

-CK



Thanks Chris. Good question. I'm thinking of making a separate thread about VORP some time in the next week. Maybe today. We'll see.
 
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I hope you won't take this the wrong way when I say that your arms must be tired from armwaving all those numbers.  It's not a criticism; I say it with deep respect, because you're trying to get a handle on some stuff that's inherently very difficult (perhaps impossible) to quantify with any sort of precision.  You haven't been afraid to dive in and start tallying and cumulating reasonable-sounding estimates.  On the one hand, I know that this is often a recipe for hilarious disaster as errors add up to the point where they consume and conceal all enlightenment.  On the other hand, you've made the effort I would never have had the courage to make. And not only does it sound pretty reasonable at the level of detail you've shared here, but your conclusions match my prejudices, which leaves me well-disposed to the enterprise.  ;-)

In particular, you've concluded that "growing/raising your own" is the best way to lower your carbon footprint, which is a happy match for my own conclusion that it's the most useful place for me to bend my personal efforts toward such saving of the world as I can manage in the decades remaining to me.  

I'm also bending toward the observation that I need animals in my system for various reasons even though I don't currently eat them for my own unique health reasons (which may change; just for instance, my own VORP eggs would have a place in how I eat, if I had them.)  So it's interesting to see your numbers argue for better carbon sequestration if I had them, too.
 
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I'll take a stab at it

For Meat:
Eat grass fed/pastured/regenerative meats. Never from feedlot meats. Info I have seen indicates that in healthy pastures there are colonies of methane fixing bacteria that capture most burps and the healthy rumen in an animal living on healthy pasture produces tremendously lower levels of methane out the backend. Also, healthy perennial grasslands are excellent natural carbon sinks.
Acquire your meat/animal protein from as close to your home as possible, this will tend to favor smaller producers that are likely to use less intensive methods of production and reduce the after harvest 'carbon cost' of these products. At home production will also allow you to eliminate the potential methane production from your compost rotting in a landfill.
Eat more offal and other less common parts of the animal. This will make better use of the 'footprint' of that animal and reduce waste from the food stream.
Hunt and fish more. Wild animals have a carbon footprint that is likely negative. Also, eating more small game (from quail and grouse to squirrel and rabbit) makes your meat choices less dependent on the erradication of forests.
Add to that, see if you can find silvopasture produced meat, now your meat is really sequestering some carbon.

For Vegans:
Avoid commodity food stuffs like corn and soy. These are among the most destructive to produce food stuffs, often engaging the same practices as commodity meat (deforestation, dessimation and oxidation of the top soil, water/air contamination, high fossil fuel use production methods).
Strive for local/regional and seasonal food, including foraging or purchasing foraged foods. This should tend to favor smaller more conscientious producers and will limit participation in carbon intensive supply chains. Like meat, if you're including wild foods than you are probably acquiring food with negative carbon footprints while also increasing the market value of less disturbed ecosystems.

For Everyone:
Work on eating more perennial staples. Maybe try out some chestnut flour or acorn flour. Try more mushrooms (I know not strictly perennial but production methods are more similar to perennial than annual ag often). Replace sugar from cane or beets with honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.. Perennial food production systems will tend to be less carbon intensive and tend to build the natural soil carbon sink up.
Cook more. I imagine that a huge aspect of the carbon footprint of US food is in the mass production. Going from dry beans to canned beans is probably a large industrial endeavor that involves lots of engines and machinery and the use of lots of natural resources. Processed food also favors mondo scale monocrop agriculture which is the most carbon intensive kind of agriculture.
Eat more species. This folds in the wild and perennial topic as well as the local and seasonal. Our demand for a thin minority of total edible species leads to the monopolization of huge chunks of earth for the production of these species at a high carbon cost. All of this land was doubtlessly producing an abundance of food with much less energy input before, it's just that we decided it was more valuable as sweet corn than a diverse polyculture. We, consumers, can create markets for local native flora and fauna that can incentivize enterprising individuals to engage in what is essentially ecological restoration to make a profit.
Seek out and support small local farmers who are doing things the right way. Again, we can demonstrate to the food system at large that we value a certain kind of agriculture and that could influence larger concerns to pursue more wholesome production.
 
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Is there a reason there can't be vegan VORP?
 
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So I'm whole-food plant based so NOT typical SAD OR vegan eater.  I came to this way of eating from a health angle not from a save the earth/animal angle but I do see that as a side benefit (especially since I do focus on cooking whole foods for myself, not packaged or takeout, and do focus on local/regional most of the time.).  I have read a bit about the earth/animal angle because of the overlap in the food choices I make but I haven't researched it and I don't feel super strongly about it.

I am interested in and supportive of your book and although feel very new to permaculture, I am sold on it and your ultimate conclusion that growing your own (or supporting your neighbors) is best.  However, I don't see what you posted re. the carbon-related (dis)value of going vegan as supporting that conclusion.  I don't feel that quoting a vegan activist in an article supports negating a claim made in a movie.  I followed the links he referred to to the "conclusion" and the link to the actual study in English is broken.  I like to read the source data myself as much as possible rather than someone's interpretation of it and since I can't do that, and what you posted only refers to this one article as your reason for dismissing this large (potentially faulty) claim, I'm personally not convinced that claim is as wrong as you/he state.

Your book may be written differently than what's posted here and might have lots of great citations.  But if it doesn't, I would shore that up if you actually want to change the minds of people who don't already agree with you and won't just go amen, brother! to that chapter.
 
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I think that most if not all of us can agree that going VORP is the best way to improve our food carbon footprint.

But a vegan, who eats from a VORP 'farmstead' that chop and biochar vs a omni who chop and feed on his VORP farmstead should at least be just as good. Is the vegan allowed to have honey for pollination and goats/cow for weed control, dog for protection, cat for company.
 
Shawn Klassen-Koop
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Sonja, I am glad that you have found a diet that works for your health needs.

In writing this post I spent many hours digging behind the scenes looking at sources. But rather than spending hundreds of hours tying up the intricate details, showing all my math, and editing what would be the length of a book rather than the length of this already rather long post, I summarized my findings and shared them as my opinion.

The section in our book that addresses this topic is probably only a few paragraphs. Not enough to fully explore the topic, but enough to get across some general ideas.

I believe the 15% (rather than 51%) figure comes from a peer-reviewed UN report. But I seem to remember it being 14%. Maybe my memory is off though.
 
Shawn Klassen-Koop
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S Bengi wrote:Is the vegan allowed to have honey for pollination and goats/cow for weed control, dog for protection, cat for company.



I think this is what we are hinting at. We have a chapter in the book where we explore how vegans benefit from caring for cattle, chickens, hogs, etc. even while maintaining their noble dietary choices.

Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with nature so I can be even lazier. Nature includes animals. I think that our systems will be more abundant and sequester more carbon with animals involved. Otherwise we have to do the animals' work.

But again, the point here is to say that the #1 thing you can do is grow your own food. Even if you come in at -0.2 tons instead of -1, you'll still have eliminated roughly a third of the average person's overall carbon footprint.
 
Chris Kott
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Have you guys looked at the new "Diet to save the planet?" I only just heard about it on the radio, but the jist is that it is suggested that, for the sake of the planet, people drastically cut their intakes of meat and fats, and boost their fruits and vegetable intake.

The suggestion was red meat once a month, and at first, I objected. Eating with my parents and siblings as kids, we'd have red meat virtually every night, and if not, we'd usually have chicken, and rarely fish.

Culturally, by the way, going meatless, say for a religious fast, involved eating fish instead of beef, pork, or chicken (we didn't eat mutton, and I can't get enough of it now).

Looking at how I eat now, though, it's obvious that if I eat red meat once a month, it's been a good month. I rarely, if ever, buy meat from the supermarket, preferring to eat less meat and buy from an ethically and environmentally (that's almost redundant in my book) minded local butcher, which costs more, so I do it less often, and enjoy it more.

I would contend, though, that if I am buying my meat from a local butcher, who sources locally and from pasture-raised livestock, that I am doing markedly better than the expectations of the aforementioned diet even if I eat twice, or even four times, the amount of red meat they suggest.

Just some food for thought, and maybe some material in case you need more meat on those bones.

-CK
 
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Shawn Klassen-Koop wrote:

S Bengi wrote:Is the vegan allowed to have honey for pollination and goats/cow for weed control, dog for protection, cat for company.



I think this is what we are hinting at. We have a chapter in the book where we explore how vegans benefit from caring for cattle, chickens, hogs, etc. even while maintaining their noble dietary choices.

Permaculture is a more symbiotic relationship with nature so I can be even lazier. Nature includes animals. I think that our systems will be more abundant and sequester more carbon with animals involved. Otherwise we have to do the animals' work.

But again, the point here is to say that the #1 thing you can do is grow your own food. Even if you come in at -0.2 tons instead of -1, you'll still have eliminated roughly a third of the average person's overall carbon footprint.



Veganism isn't just about diet for most vegans.  While I might keep a rescued livestock animal, I would never support breeding a creature for me to own and use.  Since that's an ethical stance, this section, like Sonja said, will probably end up just preaching to the choir rather than changing minds.  

By vegan VORP I was thinking more along the lines of working with the wild animals already on the land and rebuilding wild populations that humans have crowded out.  For instance, I have a herd of elk that come through my property on a fairly regular basis and daily visits from a few deer and a large flock of turkeys.  By dividing my property into corridors, rather than the usually more square paddocks used in silvopasture, I could funnel these wild animals through different parts of my property at different times, directing them back to their regular loop on the other side.  If the practice became widespread, there'd be enough territory to rebuild populations currently stressed or diminished by human encroachment.  Seems like that would be more symbiotic than replacing wild animals with domesticated ones.  Not as convenient of course, but if I was looking for convenience I wouldn't be growing my own food either ;)
 
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