The local (or locavore) food movement focuses on the concept of “food miles” as a barometer of environmental impact and sustainability. Foods that travel less between producer and consumer are generally considered more eco-friendly.
Thus, despite the inherently resource-intensive nature of raising animals for food, many advocates for environmentally responsible eating promote local animal agriculture as part of a sustainable food system.
But while there are many important reasons to source our food closer to home, eating locally shouldn’t be seen as inherently the most eco-friendly food choice.
This is because a food’s environmental impact isn’t just based on food miles. The full carbon footprint of a given food is based on a measure known as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
Factors that affect a food’s LCA are energy use, water use, harvesting methods, packaging materials, storage and preparation techniques, and other production and post production-related activities.
A 2008 study in Environmental Science & Technology found that even though food is generally transported long distances, food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions primarily derive from the production phase, accounting for 83% of the average U.S. household’s food carbon footprint.
Transportation or food miles represent only 11% of the LCA carbon “foodprint.”
Because animal foods require vastly more energy and resources to produce than plant foods, a dietary shift away from animal products can be far more effective than buying local as a means of lowering one’s food-related environmental impact.1
Pastured Organic vs. Industrial Production
Consider that even with more than 98% of all farmed animals in the U.S. currently being raised by intensive (factory farm) methods — that is, using very little space and land per animal — nearly a third of all the land in the U.S., is devoted to rangeland, pasture, or other grazing lands.2,3
With 95 million cattle, we would need, by the most conservative estimates, 250 million acres to convert all U.S. dairy and beef operations to pastured systems. That’s more than 10% of all the land in the U.S.
And that’s just cows. Nearly all of the nine billion chickens used for meat and eggs in the U.S. are confined indoors. We would need astronomically more land than actually exists to pasture even half of these chickens and the millions of pigs, sheep, goats, and turkeys currently being raised in confinement operations.
O = Organic is better (based on lower use or emission)
I = Inorganic is better (based on lower use or emission)
N = No significant difference
Animal agriculture is a main driver of human-caused climate change.
The United Nations has noted that the “livestock sector” is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than ALL transportation combined.
Yet environmental specialists critique the United Nations reports as conservative and conclude that animal farming is responsible for at least 51 percent of human-caused greenhouse gases.4
The increased land use necessary to more “humanely” farm animals often results in even higher emissions of harmful GHGs.
It’s estimated that grass-fed cows produces up to four times more methane than grain-fed cows. Because cows fatten more slowly on grass than on grain, pastured cows take significantly longer to reach slaughter weight than feedlot cows, emitting more methane and nitrous-oxide along the way. Methane is up to 84x stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when counted over 20-year time-frame (instead of the typical 100-year) – (IPCC, chapter 8, p. 714).
In general, unconfined animals gain weight more slowly than confined animals because they are allowed more movement. Organically-raised animals grow even more slowly because they aren’t permitted growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics.5
What the focus on eating local and/or humane animal products overlooks is the massive inefficiency and waste of resources inherent in cycling plant proteins through animals in order to eat the animals — from whom we obtain only a small fraction of the total available protein and calories when compared to consuming plant foods directly.
Most of the energy/calories animals consume is used to fuel their own physiological processes. Beyond that, it takes up to one hundred times more water and eleven times more fossil fuel to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein.6
As Dave Simon writes in Meatonomics: The Bizarre Economics of Meat and Dairy:
“Organic cattle require 10 percent less water than inorganic but still need 2.7 million gallons each during their lives, enough to fill 130 residential swimming pools. In light of the orders-of-magnitude difference in water needed to raise plant and animal protein, does a 10 percent savings for organic cattle really matter?”
The Global Implications of Our Food Choices
Regardless of production type, only 400-480 pounds of meat can be produced on one acre of land, compared to 20,000 pounds of plant foods that could be grown on the same plot.7
Currently, 75% of all agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals for food, either through direct grazing or growing crops for animal feed.8
With the human population soaring, and meat consumption expected to double between 2000 and 2050, if the global trend continues at current rates then we will need two-thirds more land than the earth actually has in order to meet demand for animal foods.
Yet analysis of global agricultural yields finds that better use of existing croplands could feed four billion more people simply by shifting away from growing crops for animal feed and fuel, and instead growing crops for direct human consumption.9
Reallocating croplands in this way could increase available global food calories by 70 percent, according to researchers above.
So when it comes to making the most sustainable food choices, the focus should not be on eating local meat, dairy, and eggs, but on eating less of these foods — or, better yet, eliminating them entirely.
As the authors of Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States conclude:
“Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to… a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”
See our Better Choices page for tips on delicious, healthy plant-based foods. For more on the planetary costs of animal-based foods, see this Environmental Impact Infographic.
1. Weber, Christopher L. and Matthews, H. Scott. “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States.” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. (10) 2008: pp 3508–3513.
2. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service. Land Use.
3. Mcwilliams, James. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Back Bay Books, 2009. p.135.
4. Worldwatch Institute. Livestock and Climate Change.
5. Simon, Dave. Can Animal Foods Be Produced Sustainably?.
6. Pimentel, David and Marcia Pimentel. Food, Energy and Society. CRC Press, 2007.
7. Oppenlander, Richard. Comfortably Unaware. Beaufort Books, 2012.
8. Foley, Jonathan A. et al. Solutions for a Cultivated Planet. Nature 478.7369 (2011): pp. 337-342.
9. Cassidy, Emily et al. Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes to People Nourished Per Hectare. Environmental Research Letters 8.3 (2013).