buying local vs. eating less meat

Lots of my friends are “locavores” — people who try to buy their food from somewhere nearby, rather than importing it from far away.  One reason they cite is environmental friendliness — transporting food takes energy, which mean releasing greenhouse gasses.  Eating local is one way to reduce your carbon footprint.

A recent analysis, however, summarized by Andrew Winston of the Harvard Business Review, points out that far more energy goes into growing food for the average U.S. household than transporting it:

  • 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

Also of note: lamb is far worse for the environment than beef, which is far worse than other common meat products.  The same graph compares the energy used to produce a number of foods.

Of course, there’s no reason not to do both things to help the environment — buy more produce from local sources and eat less meat and dairy.  But if you find yourself weighing the costs and benefits in order to decide when and whether to buy local or eat red meat in a given case, keep in mind the relative contributions to your carbon footprint.


  1. Mary Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    The dichotomy isn’t necessary, though. One can cut back on lamb, all red meat, all meat, can eat fish from nearer shore rather than far at sea, can use more local produce, Our garden with grey water, as far as one is able and willing.

  2. lauren Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 1:42 am

    Indeed — you don’t have to choose, as I pointed out in my final paragraph.

  3. Mark Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 5:10 am

    Here’s the surprise from that graph you linked to: Cheese is worse than Turkey, or Chicken, or even PORK! Whoa. This is my new favorite fact that I wish I didn’t know!

  4. Molly Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 6:50 am

    Thanks for writing this! It’s the sort of thing I want to be aware of when making choices. That said, I would really like to read about the differences in various types of food production methods, an area that this study acknowledges it falls short. What are the differences between grass-fed happy hippie red meat vs conventional? Industrial farms versus small farms vs large organic farms?

  5. lauren Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    @Mark: seriously! :(

    @Molly — thanks for the suggestions. I’m curious about those things, too, and will hopefully address some of them at some point.

  6. Liz Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    It’s hard to interpret the graph (in the link) because they don’t report emissions per calorie. Cheese may look bad, but it probably produces less emissions per calorie than most vegetables…

  7. lauren Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    @Liz: good point!

  8. Brooks Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:39 am

    I’d be interested in seeing that graph in terms of calories of consumed food, rather than kilograms thereof — for instance, milk is very low on the scale, but that’s almost certainly because it’s mostly water. The high-CO2-emitted foods are also almost all very high-energy.

  9. Ellen Said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    Their beef (sorry) with red meat is … nitrous oxide and methane?

    Well, the first is a problem of synthetic fertilizers, not cows and sheep. Don’t use commercial fertilizers on your feed and you get better environmental results.

    For the second, see:

    (And yes, I go out of my way to buy grass-fed beef, not the factory-farmed stuff.)