We often hear that vegetarian eating is healthier for the planet. It’s a popular and widely-held belief, even among meat-eaters. We see the idea advanced frequently and broadly in the news media and in position papers from left-leaning and generally thoughtful think tanks. But is the idea accurate?
In this Natural Truth post, we’ll take on the question of whether vegan and vegetarian human diets are better for the planet, or ecologically healthier, than ones where animal foods (meats, dairy, poultry, eggs, and fish) make up a significant part of our protein intake and overall calories. Notably, we will largely leave aside questions of the personal health effects of these diets, but you can explore this topic via a companion Natural Truth post, Green Over Red Diets.
World Soil Loss, Primarily From Unsustainable Agriculture – Some Gray Areas Were Previously Desertified Via Unsustainable Cultivation Or Overgrazing (UN FAO)
To begin our discussion, we would point out that the ecological health effects of various human diets is an enormously complex topic, and an open scientific question today. As this recent science press article and underlying research paper highlight, the ecological impact of our dominant food systems is not an area of settled science, and there are many competing claims and counterclaims regarding the planetary effects of human eating and our corresponding systems of food production.
Part of this impasse owes to the high number of variables and conditions that must be considered when calculating the effects of our eating patterns on the planet’s ecology. Part of it stems from the fact that food system effects vary by ecosystem, by the types of technologies and agricultural practices used, and by the volume of food people eat on average (which can be influenced by cultural norms, technology, and even the composition of our diets).
To improve our understanding in the face of this complexity, researchers must make simplifying assumptions and limit the scope of their considerations. And it is in these simplifications that divergence begins, both directly in empirical findings and indirectly, as research findings are interpreted and used to advance or support various viewpoints.
Still, a fair reading and summation of available science assessing the ecological impacts of our primary food systems is possible, which we will attempt to provide in this discussion. As you will see, this effort leads to an outlook that is far more tentative, nuanced, and qualified than we often see in both the popular and scientific press. Continue reading “Natural Truth: Vegetarian Ecology”