Byline: HEIDI SOPINKA
A new study out of Cornell University (the first to examine land requirements of complete diets, or "foodprints") suggests that although a vegetarian diet in New York uses the least land per person (0.44 acres compared with 2.11 for meat eaters) it's not as efficient in terms of land use as a plant-based diet that also includes a bit of meat and dairy. Conflicting with the Union of Concerned Scientists' recommendation that being a vegetarian is one of the top things you can do for the planet, just where does this new study leave the omnivore?
Percentage of the Earth's land surface used for global livestock grazing and feed production. (Livestock use 70 per cent of the planet's agricultural land.)
Percentage of global warming attributed to livestock (more than all forms of transportation combined). The main culprits are methane - the natural result of bovine digestion - and the nitrogen emitted by manure. Deforestation of grazing land also adds to the effect.
6.2 to 1
Ratio of feed to meat produced: In 1993, U.S. farm animals were fed 192.7 million tonnes of feed concentrates (the bulk being corn) in order to produce 31.2 million tonnes of meat.
Additional percentage of New York's population that could be supported agriculturally by the state if everyone followed a low-fat vegetarian diet. But, according to Cornell researchers, even though a moderate-fat, plant-based diet with a little meat and dairy uses more land than the
all-vegetarian diet, it is more efficient because it relies more on pasture land that is widely available. Fruits, vegetables and grain, on the other hand, grow on high-quality cropland.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In order to more efficiently use land that supports a moderate-fat, vegetarian diet, the study suggests limiting annual meat and egg intake to about two cooked ounces a day - a significant drop from the typical North American high-meat, high-dairy diet. (Canadians and Americans consume almost 220 pounds of meat per capita each year, or more than nine ounces a day.) Given the dismal statistics, it is impossible to ignore the fact that raising animals for food is, according to the United Nations, "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." Short of shooting your own wild game
or embracing vegetarianism, the best thing you can do for the environment is cut back on your carnivorous servings (size and frequency) and buy certified local organic whenever you can. As Michael Pollan advises in The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal
in a Fast-Food World, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Sources: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations,
Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Union of Concerned Scientists