Meat Waste Is Worse for the Environment Than Vegetable Waste
The amount of food wasted in the US and EU is pretty shocking; the USDA estimates that around 31 percent of all produced food in the US goes to waste, and a recent study surveying six countries in Europe found that the average EU consumer wastes about 16 percent of his or her food.
But on a consumer to consumer basis, a new study from the University of Missouri at Columbia found that we can get even more specific about the impact of different categories of that wasted food. And the conclusion does not look favorably upon meat-heavy diets.
The team from Missouri, led by Christine Costello, took a look at four all-you-can-eat establishments and traced the supply of each category of food (meats, produce, and grains) back to their sources. Each category was found to have different levels of overall energy usage from the beginning of the farming process (either the birth of the animal, for meat, or the preparing of the ground, for plants) until the food hits the plate. There are many environmental consequences of farming, no matter what kind of farm, but this particular study concentrated on resource management: fuels used by equipment, fertilizers, and, most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions.
“Based on the findings, we recommend consumers pay special attention to avoiding waste when purchasing and preparing meat; if consumers choose to prepare extra food ‘just in case,’ they should use plant-based foods,” said co-author Ronald G. McGarvey in the study’s release. Meats, it turns out, are the worst offenders in terms of energy required, followed by vegetables, and distantly followed by grains. This lines up with what we’ve seen before from studies from, among others, the University of Vermont, which found that in terms of the ratio of energy required to produce the food to energy gained from eating the food, meat is the least efficient.
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat meat and maintain a decent carbon footprint (though it certainly does provide a bit of extra evidence, if you want to make that argument), but more that we should keep in mind the specific environmental costs of different categories of food. Really, it suggests not to over-buy meat—every bit that goes into the garbage is far more costly than each bit of plant matter.