Okay, so you’ve decided to eat more sustainably: more fruits and vegetables, less meat, and only free-range eggs. You feel you’re on a roll. But then you may find yourself in the supermarket with an avocado in your hand and hear an inner critical voice say: how can this be sustainable, such a water guzzler flown in from the other side of the planet?
Kudos to you: you are doing something that matters. Food is responsible for a quarter of all global CO₂ emissions. That means making the right choices about what you’re eating has a big impact. But there are many different opinions about what the best option is. Does it make sense to eat less meat if you do buy imported avocados and bananas? That’s what we try to sort out today. What is the impact of an imported avocado with many food miles? And how does it compare with a hamburger from your local butcher?
Is meat really that bad for the environment? Unfortunately, we’re afraid it is.
Livestock makes up a big part of food emissions and there are several reasons for that. Cows and sheep produce methane through their digestive processes and they need a lot of food, water and land before they become food themselves.
The short answer: Eating locally grown produce is a good idea, but it has less impact than reducing meat and dairy consumption. Our World in Data shows that the footprint of food is mainly land use and processes at the farm, like the application of fertilizers. Transport accounts for less than 10% of the food footprint for most foods. When looking at the footprint of diets across Europe, food transport is responsible for only 6% of emissions, whilst dairy, meat, and eggs accounted for 83%.
Let’s make this specific: think of a hamburger. To get that hamburger on your plate, a cow needs animal feed and water and a piece of land to stroll around on. After two years of grazing, eating, drinking, and producing a lot of methane, the cow is slaughtered. The cow’s meat is processed into burgers (including the one on your plate) and transported to supermarkets, where you pick that burger off the rack. The climate impact of your hamburger (let’s say it’s 100g): 25l water, 1,50 m² land use per year, and 3kg CO₂ emissions (data from Foodfootprint). Transport makes up a very small part of these emissions. In beef from herds, it’s only 0,5%. This means the difference between an imported hamburger or one from your local butcher is not that big in terms of CO₂ emissions.
Over to the avocado. That one also needs water to grow and a plot of land. Then someone picks the avocado and the fruit is transported, to end up in the supermarket again, and - finally - on your plate. The impact of one avocado (let’s say it’s 100g as well): 116l water, 0,2m² land use per year, and 0,1 kg CO₂ emissions (data from Foodfootprint). Yes, a local hamburger does better on water use, but take a look at the CO₂ emissions. One hamburger emits as much CO₂ as 25 avocados and uses 6,5 times more land than an avocado.
Eating locally is a great way to support local farmers and make sure they get a fair price for their work. But it only slightly reduces your carbon footprint. Local meat still has many times the carbon footprint of most other foods. Whether you buy it from the farmer next door or fly it in from the other side of the world, it’s not the origin that makes up the big carbon footprint of your hamburger, but the fact that it is beef.
Do you feel inspired to eat less meat? Check our list of 10 places where you can find mouth-watering veggie recipes. Bon appetit!