I began by doing a few Google searches to get an idea of where the claim may have originally come from: “Vegetarianism is worse for environment”, “Vegetarian bad for evironment”. All the top hits I got for these searches seemed to trace back to a single source. If I dug down a few pages into the results I found a couple older results, which generally traced back to the Weston A. Price foundation, but all the top results (that were relevant to my query) were published on or after Feb. 12, 2010. The earliest of these was an article published in The Telegraph titled, Becoming vegetarian 'can harm the environment'. Like all the other top results I was getting, this article in The Telegraph mentioned a Cranfield University study commissioned by the WWF. My task became clear. I had to track down this vaguely referenced study.
Luckily, the Telegraph article included a single quote from the study. “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.” This was the key I needed, and I was able to track this quote down to a pdf available on the WWF website. This study was affiliated with Cranfield University and was published a little less than a month prior to the Telegraph article. This was clearly the study being referenced. How Low Can We Go?: An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050.
My first thought was to check the methodology of this study, to make sure everything seemed appropriate and that it hadn't left out anything like forgetting to count feed crops toward livestock's impact, instead of putting it down as vegetarian food (I can hardly believe the things some people think we eat). The methodology was not just sound, but incredibly thorough, not just counting the feed toward livestock, but refrigeration, transportation, packaging, cooking, every single detail and bit of greenhouse gas seemed to be getting counted. I was beginning to think I may need to reconsider my views on the environmental consequences of vegetarianism, but first I needed to see the results to understand this conclusion for myself.
Very little of the study actually had to do with vegetarianism. The study was about the environmental (specifically in terms of greenhouse gasses) impact of our food choices, and vegetarianism only came up because one out of dozens of scenarios they looked into to mitigate future impact was adopting a no-meat diet. It seemed strange that all of the articles I had read had focused so much on this small aspect of the study, but it was what had attracted me to the articles in the first place, so I wasn't going to blame them for reporting on the bit that seemed interesting.
I still had not seen the original quote from The Telegraph that led me to this study in the first place, and as I read through the results they seemed to be in line what I would have expected. Beef seemed to be worst for the environment in nearly every area studied. Poultry was a far better (environmentally speaking) alternative to beef, and performed at roughly the same level most plant foods did. I was just waiting to come across some bombshell that would be an unexpected hit against vegetarianism. Production? No. Transportation? No. Packaging? No. Refrigeration? No. Disposal? No. Then I came to Table 24, which had results from their various scenarios for reducing future emissions (Click to enlarge).
Not only did no-meat reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it performed better than any other single measure looked at in the study even beating out such far-fetched alternatives as “zero fossil fuels”. I finished reading through the conclusion of the study and still did not find the quote from The Telegraph that had led me to this study in the first place. The conclusion did feel the need to mention the no-meat scenario however:
Diet provides single measures with big effects. In addition, these measures are technically feasible now. The most effective single measure (meat-free diet) gives a 20% reduction. The benefit of a vegetarian diet increases to about 38% when our estimates of LUC [Land Use Change] emissions are included, but this excludes the loss of soil carbon if UK grassland was converted to arable cropping. Our analysis of the effects of the production of substitutes leads to the conclusion that a broad reduction in livestock product consumption balanced by broad-based increases in crop product intake is a more feasible measure which avoids the land use burden associated with soy based livestock product analogues. A 66% reduction in livestock products delivers a 15% reduction in supply chain emissions. Moreover, reduction in ruminant production in particular will reduce methane emissions.
The main dietary changes examined would involve substantial social change. This is quite likely to be the largest barrier. Meat, milk and eggs have been part of our diet for centuries. While a substantial minority actively embrace a meat free or vegan diet, most consumers will continue to consume livestock products. The better nutritional properties of the animal products compared with the non-animal alternatives mean that vitamin supplementation is required. However manufacturing vitamin supplementation appears to be trivial in energy and GHG terms owing to the very small quantities needed.
(p.73 of pdf)
The conclusions were clearly quite in favor of adopting a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons, if anything slightly more favorable than I would have anticipated coming into this paper. The question remained, where had that quote from The Telegraph come from? I did a search of the pdf and found it, not in the conclusion, but rather in the introduction.
A switch from red to white meat will reduce supply chain emissions by 9% but this would increase our reliance on imported soy meal substantially. Our analysis indicates that the effect of a reduction in livestock product consumption on arable land use (which is a critical component of the link with deforestation) will depend on how consumers compensate for lower intakes of meat, eggs and dairy products. A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and Quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK. In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable. We estimate that a 50% reduction in livestock production consumption would release about 1.6 Mha of arable land (based on the yield of crops supplying the UK) used for livestock feed production. This would be off-set by an increase of about 1.0 M ha in arable land needed for direct crop consumption (based on UK yields). In addition to the release of arable land, between 5 and 10 Mha of permanent grassland would be available for extensification, other uses, or re-wilding. Such changes would open up ‘game-changing’ opportunities but there needs to be careful assessment made in the development policy if unintended consequences are to be avoided.
(p.8-9 of pdf)
It appears that in the middle of a paragraph describing how a reduction in livestock consumption and a switch to plant based products would be beneficial, a quote on how not all processed foods obey this trend has been quote mined. The mass release of the idea that vegetarianism is worse for the environment did not trace back to a study but rather to media reporting, and now I wanted to track down where the reporting originally went wrong.
I tracked down every English news article that I could find via Google in which this study was being referenced. The list is relatively short, but these sources were then picked up by blogs and echoed all over the internet. I took down several relevant bits of information about how each source reported on the study. Here are my results:
|Date||Source||Title||Vegetarian||“How Low Can We Go”||Cranfield||Donal Murphy-Bokern|
|01/15/10||Major report focuses on food chain emissions||No||Yes||No||No|
|01/18/10||WWF||Emissions from UK food industry far higher than believed||No||Yes||No||No|
|01/18/10||Farmers Weekly Interactive||Farm emissions 'far higher than thought'||Yes (in quote by dairy farmer)||Yes||No||No|
|01/22/10||Taylor Vinters||UK food system ''must reduce carbon emissions''||No||Yes||No||No|
|01/27/10||The Land||UK food system emissions higher than thought||No||Yes||No||No|
|02/18/10||Green Fudge||WWF study shows environmental impact of food||No||Yes||No||No|
|02/12/10||The Telegraph||Becoming vegetarian 'can harm the environment'||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|02/12/10||The Times Online||Tofu can harm environment more than meat, finds WWF study||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|02/13/10||The Med Guru||Tofu hurts environment more than meat—study||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|02/13/10||The Australian||Tuck in and save the planet: Eating red meat is the new way to be green||Yes||No||Yes||No|
|02/13/10||Daily Mail||How being vegetarian does more harm to the environment than eating meat||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
|02/28/10||Meat Trade News Daily||Ireland - Vegetarians damaging the planet||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
Full Data Set
I have grouped the news stories into two separate categories and then sorted them by date. The first group seems to have done a good job of reporting on the story. They all mention the title of the study they are discussing, none of the mention Cranfield University, which is hardly mentioned in the study, and the only time vegetarianism is mentioned by any of them is in a quote given by a dairy farmer to one of the articles. The second group on the other hand did not report on the study appropriately. All of them mention the word vegetarian multiple times, they all mention Cranfield University, most of them include the name of a single author, Donal Murphy-Bokern, and not a single one remembers to include the title of the study they are discussing. It is clear that several of the later ones let their imaginations loose with even the quote mined version of the quote turning a study which has condemned beef and red meat along every step of the way into, “eating red meat is the new way to be green.”
Both The Daily Telegraph and The Times Online include the clearly quote mined quote in their articles. One hint that The Times may be the guilty party is that the Daily Telegraph references a quote from Liz O'Neil, the spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society, as being given to The Times, and the article in The Times also includes the same quote. In any case, these early stories were picked up and clearly manipulated by other news outlets who appear to not even have been aware of the name of the study they were addressing. If you can't be buggered to read a study that you are writing an article about, then perhaps it is time for you to get out of journalism. Everyone who reported on this as being a mark against vegetarianism clearly did not do their due diligence at best. There is no reason why any journalist should not have been able to track down and read the original study just as I did.
Now if only I had some way of tracking down that young man I talked to at West Valley College.