Vegetarian diets are not going to save the planet from climate change

Organic shoppers—innocent and sustainable, or environmental foes?
Organic shoppers—innocent and sustainable, or environmental foes?
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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“The world should just switch to a vegetarian/vegan diet.” — seemingly everyone, regarding the food-sustainability problem

If someone offers a solution to the Gordian Knot of food sustainability, run it through the following gauntlet:

  1. Does it allow you to do most of your food shopping at the grocery store?
  2. Does it require just eliminating one or two things from your diet or, alternatively, eliminating all but a few things?
  3. Does it excuse you from making substantial shifts in your diet as the seasons progress?

A ‘yes’ to any of those questions is the clarion call of bulls . A long list of solutions gets beaten to death in this gauntlet, and few so much as vegetarianism.

Note: everything written from here on is from the “local” perspective of a Virginian.

First things first: not all vegetarian or carnivorous diets are created even remotely equal. A vegetarian who consumes whatever’s in the produce aisle of Wegmann’s is going to have a much larger eco-footprint than the plant-centric, meat-occasional omnivore who purchases exclusively from the local farmer’s market.

This guy, in turn, will have a smaller* footprint than the full-out vegan who subsists on plant-based meat substitutes, quinoa, and ancient grains. That vegan, however, will have a much smaller footprint compared to the American gastropod that ramrods close to a pound of feedlot meat into his gullet every single day (full disclosure: in weak moments, I occasionally fall in with this group).

This all sounds very divisive, so let’s focus on what they all have in common: None of their diets or sourcing habits are going to solve the food sustainability problem.

Plants (generally) require fewer resources to produce and result in fewer emissions and other harmful environmental consequences. Unfortunately, most food plants in this country are grown in resource-intensive systems that groan under the weight of a relentlessly demanding global consumer, or in largely artificial environments that wreak havoc on soil and the broader ecology — albeit not to the degree and scale of the systems that produce industrial meat. Given the way we grow food today, it’s more accurate to say that vegetarian diets are “less awful,” not “better,” than omnivorous diets

Ever wonder why grocery store tomatoes taste like garbage? It’s because people demand them all year. Some 90% of winter tomatoes come from Florida, where neither the soil nor climate is conductive to growing them, but it’s warm enough — and the commodity system rewards yields and shelf life instead of taste. The same can be said for just about any other crappy perennially available supermarket produce: the berries, tree fruits, and even lettuces and root vegetables you see in the supermarket are all the end result of a global commodity-oriented race to the bottom where taste and sustainability are traded for yield and durability.

The veggies, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Where the vegetarian diet really falls all over itself is in staples. Most vegetarians wind up eating a fairly large amount of wheat, soy, corn, and rice. These staples are produced almost exclusively in vast ecologically-anathemic monocultures. They’re so large, astronauts can see entire sections of the planet turn brown and die every Spring as farmers nuke the soil’s native biology to make way for the artificially imposed order of the grain field.

Most of these staple crops — especially corn and soy — wind up in animal feed and fuel; I’m not arguing that the vegetarian diet is responsible for all the grain fields in America. I’m arguing that the vegetarian diet, as sourced by people who say the solution is to “just” switch from meat to veg, relies on these fields which are responsible for biological death on a scale so massive, it can be seen from space.

Organic production slows, but does not stop, the bleeding. “Organic” is an all-natural veneer applied to a grossly unnatural system where, just as in industrial agriculture, native ecosystems are leveled with the goal of funneling a handful of high-value products into the gaping maw of the global commodities market. You can buy organic almonds, tomatoes, and lettuces grown on groundwater-draining farms in desert and Gulf climates, any time of year, anywhere in the country. Avoiding sprays, tillage, and synthetic fertilizer doesn’t compensate for the damage this causes.

*Yes. Smaller.


The solution to the food-sustainability problem — the one I think will really work — isn’t simple. Complex, deep-rooted problems don’t have easy solutions. This solution is based on a system of production that’s been mostly dormant for centuries. It calls for massive disruption of a deeply entrenched global food supply chain. It would require a huge influx of human capital into a vastly transformed agriculture sector which, considering the state of wages and youth unemployment, is probably more of an opportunity than a challenge.

On the east coast, the solution is large numbers of smaller (50–500 acres) cultivated food forests surrounding our urban centers, forming the backbone of a production system augmented by urban gardens growing on nearly every rooftop, balcony, vacant lot, road median, yard, public park, and empty warehouse floor. The solution involves brick & mortar markets and food hubs being supplanted by producer/consumer exchanges* that allow computers to handle the aggregating without obscuring the relationship between grower and eater.

But that’s the easy part.

The hard part is this: imagine twenty years from now you wake up in Virginia and the food system exists as I’ve outlined above. What’s your diet look like? Here’s a (by no means complete) seasonal sampling:

  • Winter: it’s going to be mostly meat, root veggies, and stored grains/flours on the menu; we’re no longer spending energy heating greenhouses in the dead of winter to produce February tomatoes. Venison, grass-fed beef, turkeys, lambs, and ducks are all slaughtered in the Fall after they’ve fattened on windfall fruit and leftovers from tree and grain harvests. With outdoor temps at and in some cases well below freezing, the energy costs for storing meats are minimal.
  • Spring: the urban gardens start churning out early-season leafy produce while the food forests cart in wild edibles (ramps, morels, chanterelles, chicken of the woods, lambs quarters, plantain, dandelion) by the hogshead. Strawberries are only available for about six weeks, but they’re impossibly delicious. Eggs are everywhere and cheap in the Spring flush, and stewing hens aged out of the egg-laying rotation and roosters replace the heavy red meats of winter, but in much smaller numbers.
  • Summer: at prime ripening time, all the favorite farmers market staples are back. The urban gardens are putting out the familiar melons, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet corn, okra, and peppers while the a dizzying array of perennial tree/bush fruits march in from the forests: elderberry, huckleberry, chokecherry, blueberry, blackberry, cherries, grapes, peaches and all the jams, jellies, spreads, pies, and tarts that love them. Honey and sorghum harvests come toward the end of the season, providing sweetness throughout the rest of the year.
  • Fall: most of the staple harvests come in around this time; ancient grains grown between swales of guilded trees and rice harvested from chinampas in ponds are cut, processed, and ground in co-op mills along with huge tree harvests of hazelnut and chestnuts that have by and large replaced wheat flours. You will still enjoy pumpkin-everything, along with sunchoke, paw paw, cattail, and tuckahoe. Beer and bourbon are absolutely everywhere. Pigs, beeves, lamb, chickens, and ducks in the food forests are all fattened on windfall acorns, fruit, and grains that would have otherwise rotted on the ground and gone to waste.

This part is hard because it involves strange ingredients and seasonality for a population that’s accustomed to corn-based-everything and buying strawberries in August. I don’t have a solution for this problem ready to ship. That’s where the social innovators, of whose ranks I am not a member, come in. But I can talk about the benefits.

This is a diet that’s highly seasonal, extremely diverse, plant-based but omnivorous (though you could, with some straining, pull off a vegetarian diet), and hyper-local.

It’s a production system that pushes resource-intensive growth of annual veggies/fruits to urban environs where those resources can be applied more efficiently, while shortening the supply lines to get highly perishable produce to eaters faster, at peak nutrition, with a negligible carbon footprint.

Staples, which are now derived as much from perennials (e.g. hazelnuts) as annuals (e.g. corn), are grown in food forests drawn closer into the city — a relocation made possible by the fact that smaller food forests, unlike farms, can be directly integrated into suburban or exurban developments.

Animals in the larger, more remote food forests serve as a source of natural soil fertility, mineral cycling, and conversion of inedibles like windfall fruits and perennial grasses — which are the best broad scale soil builders and, by extension, carbon sinks, on Earth — into human-edible protein.

The highly available supply of food, elimination of hubs and physical aggregators and processors, seasonality of production, and simplification of the supply chain all drive substantial reductions in consumer costs, finally democratizing a food space once the nearly-exclusive domain of the well-heeled or unusually committed.

The possibilities are manifold and exciting, but require a lot of effort and innovation to realize.

*This is a concept near and dear to my heart. Everybody and their brother is erecting some new, me-too food hub to siphon off a piece of the local food dollar, but what’s REALLY needed is automatic matching of eaters’ needs to producers’ inventory in real time, with decentralized fulfillment. Imagine DoubleClick and Lyft had a baby at a farmers market, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. Done correctly, this would open up the demand side of local ag like a flower, removing a huge barrier to entry for budding farmers and starting a virtuous cycle where eaters and growers chase after one another into a surging marketplace. It’s a system that’s scalable for its ability to replicate geographically, and strong because of its distributed, decentralized architecture — and ultimately, capable of competing with the vertical integrators.


This may all seem like a pipe dream. But it’s the only solution I’ve heard of that isn’t: (1) Satisfied with delaying the inevitable via industrial or organic “traditional” agriculture while people pray for World War III or a good hearty plague to nudge the population’s growth curve in the right direction. (2) Insisting that we all join eco-villages or hippie communes, commit to 100% raw vegan diets, live in yurts, sleep with each others’ non-spouse life partners, and wind up with pink eye.

True sustainability lies in the careful observation of each ecosystem in which a community of people exists, and leveraging both ancestral knowledge and modern technology to coax a yield from that ecosystem that can feed all the people, well and fairly, now and always. And yes, 9 times out of 10, that ecosystem will include animals.