Brow Beat

Why That Study About How Vegetarians Are Killing the Environment Is Ridiculously Wrong

Unfairly maligned lettuce.

Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re an omnivore, you’ve probably had the pleasure of being told that your meat-eating ways are steadily destroying the Earth. Unfortunately, the righteous vegetarian who likely called you out also happened to have the evidencecharts, and fancy infographics on their side—not to mention the moral high ground. (Disclaimer: I am a vegetarian.) Well, not anymore: An impressive-looking new study in the journal Environment Systems and Decisions has thoroughly vindicated meat-eating from an environmental standpoint. In fact, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University report this month that eating lettuce actually causes far more harmful greenhouse gas emissions to be leaked into the atmosphere than eating bacon.

Take that, carrot-loving hippies! Enjoy your planet-killing rabbit food.

Ha, you wish. I’ve seen a lot of misleading nutrition studies in my time, but this one really takes the cake. Let’s start at the beginning.

The study rests on the premise that “going vegetarian” means replacing meat with large amounts of vegetables, fruits, and dairy, which is what the USDA recommends for a healthy diet. Ergo, the authors spend most of their time hating on specific vegetables: “Eating lettuce is over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon,” says Paul Fischbeck, one of the study’s authors. “Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery, and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken.”

First: Obviously, we are not replacing the meat in our diet with lettuce. Who would do that? Instead, we’re eating other protein- and nutrient-dense foods, such as grains, beans, seeds, nuts, tofu and, in my case, the occasional delicacy of chik’n nuggets. Now, I’m not saying tofu is perfect—while soy beans themselves are a highly efficient source of protein, tofu relies on many different production methods, so it’s hard to know how it stacks up. I’m saying that this study sets up a false comparison. If you took the time to actually look at a vegetarian diet, you’d think twice before suggesting that vegetarians are replacing animal protein with humongous piles of salad.

Worse, the media is now citing this study as proof that the average vegetarian diet causes more harm to the environment than the average omnivorous one. This interpretation is simply wrong. In fact, not only does this study never once compare the average American diet to the average vegetarian diet, but the diets up for comparison aren’t even vegetarian. Instead, the researchers compare the American diet to three different caloric scenarios recommended by the USDA, all of which involve fish and a whole lot of dairy. Because these scenarios involve less meat than the average American diet, they’re being used as a stand-in for a vegetarian diet. That’s alarmingly false. 

These kind of details, of course, haven’t stopped the press from having a field day. You can almost feel the glee in headlines like these: “Vegetarians are hurting the planet,” “Vegetarian and ‘healthy’ diets are more harmful to the environment,” or my personal favorite, “In your face, vegans! Study finds lettuce is ‘three times worse than bacon.’ ” Just typing them has made me so angry that I have essentially turned into the Hulk, flushing green with anger and the pigmentation caused by my steady diet of peas, lettuce, celery, and avocado. (Or Popeye, who as we all know gets his strength from eating only spinach, and accelerates the inevitable destruction of the planet while he’s at it.) 

If it were just this one misleading study, I wouldn’t take the time to dignify it or draw attention to its poor methodology; I’d hope that most readers are smart enough to disregard such nonsense. But it’s not: There’s an entire genre of “gotcha!” studies that attempt to poke holes in dietary lifestyles traditionally considered “righteous,” without adding anything to the constructive dialogue. The problem is, in their eagerness to knock one group off their moral high horse, these kinds of reports play fast and loose with the facts—which leads to distinctly misleading conclusions. Here are just a few examples:

Okay, I get it: Vegetarians are annoying. As an omnivore, it’s probably maddening to feel like you’re constantly under attack for your life choices. So I can understand why it would be tempting to try to take these holier-than-thou eaters down a notch. But please: Don’t let your desire for vindication get in the way of your capacity for rational thought. Researchers and reporters, try to be a bit more responsible with your claims. And readers, when you see studies like this, take them with a liberal grain of salt—organic, locally-sourced, free-range, vegetarian, whatever-helps-you-sleep-at-night salt. 

The solution is not to vilify the category of vegetarians as a whole. Here’s the real solution: If you want to characterize the vegetarian diet, talk to some actual vegetarians. Many of us, I’d have you know, are not quite so righteous.

If you thought to ask, I’d tell you that, when I first went vegetarian at age 12, I made the rookie mistake of replacing most of my meat with dairy: Mac n’ cheese, grilled cheese, bagels and cream cheese, you name it. This meant that, in addition to having a lot of gas (which, incidentally, also adds harmful emissions to the atmosphere), I was contributing to the very same industry (cows) that causes such devastating environmental degradation. In fact, it’s well-known that cheese is far harsher on the environment than many meats and most fish. As a vegan friend recently reminded me, environmentally, “There’s basically no difference between a vegetarian and a carnivore.” Oops.

Even today, I eat a terrifying amount of super-processed soy products like chik’n nuggets and Vegenaise, because I love them. In general, the more processed a food is, the more energy it takes to make it, and the more carbon it emits, so I’m definitely harming the planet with that, too. And that’s not all: I wear second-hand leather, eat marshmallows made with cow hoof glue, and just last week I had a Starbucks latte in a paper cup. (Yeah, you heard me.) I’m not claiming to be morally righteous; I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’m a human being, and if I contradict myself then, very well, I contradict myself.

As you presumably know, millions of people go vegetarian for reasons other than wanting to save the Earth, i.e. personal health, moral convictions, a love of animals, or perhaps a deeply-rooted hatred of vegetables. The fact that I don’t eat meat doesn’t tell you anything about my reasons (which, if you must know, stem from a love of animals). And if you have a problem with your own dietary choices, maybe you should look inward, instead of projecting your own problems onto others. Now please pass the veggie bacon.