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By: John Ruf
On Dec. 15 2015, the website IFLScience posted an article titled, “Study Claims Being Vegetarian Is WORSE For The Environment Than Eating Meat.” The study in question was written by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and was published in Environment Systems and Decisions. After reading the IFLScience article, and being unfortunate enough to stumble upon an argument in the comments section between Ivory Bill, The Exterminator, and Food Narc I felt the need to do what most commenters on the site clearly had not: read the research study. Here is my take.
We must take the opportunity to learn from new information, and not be so quick to reject it.
To begin, recognize the click-bait manoeuvre conducted by IFLScience; the article’s title was sufficiently provocative without capitalizing “worse.” The article was misleadingly controversial in an effort to get page views. Furthermore, the article itself was clearly written after only reading the study’s abstract — or if they did in fact read past the abstract, they forgot to include the fact that the authors of the research paper include several previously conducted studies all identifying vegetarianism as having a net benefit on the environment. To name a few: in 2013 Meier and Christen concluded that in Germany, switching to a low-meat diet would reduce energy use by seven percent, water use by 26 percent, greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent, and land use by 15 percent. That same year Vanham et al. found that the EU could reduce their water footprint by 30 percent if meat consumption was halved. In 2014 Tilman and Clark concluded that sizeable shifts toward Mediterranean, pescetarian, and vegetarian diets have the potential to lower global agricultural emission and land clearing.
The Carnegie Mellon researchers acknowledge the overwhelming body of scientific research backing the stance that reductions in meat consumption benefit the environment. Their addition to the field focuses specifically on the United States and raises questions about the quality of dietary plan outlined by the United States Department of Agricultures. If existing research finds that low-meat diets in the European Union positively affects the environment then this new study is more telling of the quality of the USDA dietary plan than about the usefulness of limiting meat consumption.
Nevertheless, this study opposes the common belief about the environmental superiority of a plant-based diet. It is integral that those who have committed to cutback on their meat consumption must not a) use this research as reason to renege on their cutbacks, or b) simply dismiss this research because it does not align with their previously held beliefs. Science will always build upon itself — so we must take the opportunity to learn from new information, and not be so quick to reject it. To believe that our current diet is the best it can be — both for the environment and for our health — is fallacious and ignores potential areas for improvement.
The misinformation surrounding this topic is a great example of what I like to call ‘grapevine science’: the misrepresentation of findings by non-experts who choose to report on scientific studies. What started as research into the efficiency of various diets in the United States eventually morphed into the claim that vegetarian diets harm the environment more than meat-based diets. Those without a PhD should not feel that they are excluded from weighing in on the issue, however, everyone should be aware of articles reporting things that seem counterintuitive and read the scientific study before believing click-bait articles that make sweeping statements about scientific research.