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The Daily Tar Heel

How to be an eco-friendly carnivore

As you might guess from the vegetarian stations in both campus dining halls and the prevalence of all-vegetarian restaurants, Chapel Hill is a pretty veg-friendly place.

Vegetarianism is a growing trend, and herbivores often cite reasons like health benefits, finances and personal ethics for choosing this lifestyle. However, a less studied aspect of vegetarianism is its impact on the environment. Is it better for the earth for everyone to lose their veg-inity?

According to a 2005 study from the University of Chicago, the carbon footprint of a vegetarian is much smaller than that of someone with a diet rich in hot dogs and hamburgers. The study reported that the average vegetarian who consumes the same amount of calories as a meat-eater contributes 1.5 fewer tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s the same reduction as switching from a Suburban to a Camry.

This is mostly due to the amount of fossil fuel needed to produce meat. It takes 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of beef and 22 for one of poultry. One calorie of soybeans, on the other hand, requires just one of fuel. (Remember, a calorie is technically just a measure of energy.)

Why is this? Plants need things like sunlight, soil and fresh air, but an animal requires food. Raising animals for consumption adds an extra energy-intensive step to the food chain.

Much of the grain grown in the U.S. today isn’t even intended for humans, but rather for livestock. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Imagine how much bread (or beer) could be made with the 16 pounds of grain that goes into four quarter-pound hamburgers.

Livestock also produce their own greenhouse emissions; cattle are a huge source of methane, which is more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. And livestock require grazing land, adding to the global deforestation problem.

Many argue that pescatarians (those who eat only seafood) have found a middle ground that’s easier than full-fledged vegetarianism but is still eco-friendly. Pescatarians have lower emissions than typical meat eaters.

Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks. Fishing reduces marine diversity, and fisheries have become similar to factory farms — energy-intensive and filled with pollution.

But the news isn’t all bad for Chick-fil-A lovers. A recent study found that many common meat substitutes like soybeans or chickpeas are also harmful to the environment, since these crops are often shipped long distances. These transportation emissions can exceed those from the meat the crops theoretically replaced.

Substitutes also tend to be highly processed. The manufacturing of tofu, for example, from soybeans is just another energy-consuming step.

So what does all this mean? Should we give up burgers and bacon altogether?

I think the important thing to take away from all this is that the environmental merits of vegetarianism depend on the actual food you’re eating. Consider a meat eater who only eats Big Macs and Whoppers. He’s a lot different from a carnivore who only purchases locally grown free-range chicken.

If the old adage, “You are what you eat” holds true, we should be careful to choose food that’s as eco-friendly as we hope to be.

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