It depends. I have been debating this one with my girlfriend quite a bit. The immediate ecological effects of vegetarianism is less animals need to breed and slaughtered, fed less, and their meat doesn’t have to travel great distances. That is nullified, however, if you get your vegetarian food from all over the country/world. It’s tough to compare to buying a hybrid car but the best way would be to be a vegetarian with a tendency to buy local foods. That way you cut down on the fuel to move food and you can go pick it up in your nice hybrid car.
I will agree with the statement that it is tough to compare getting a hybrid with going vegetarian, there are way too many things to consider (what kind of hybrid, what car do you drive now, how far do you drive a year, etc.), but I would like to clarify a couple of things in the previous response.
First off, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most environmentally friendly, not because of the energy it takes to move food, but because it depends on where you get your protein. Red meat is very energy intense to create. It produces a lot of emissions in terms of producing fertilizers, growing corn, cow burps releasing methane, deforestation, etc. Chicken, on the other hand, takes only a bit more energy than grains for the same amount of protein. Whereas eggs require almost as much energy as beef to create the same amount of protein (because there isn’t much protein in an egg, relatively).
Second, the point about what you eat being negated by where it comes from has been debunked. What you eat is significantly more important than the energy it takes to get there. Overall, transportation accounts for about 4% of the total greenhouse gas footprint of your food. It’s still important, but no where on the order of magnitude as the difference between eating pasta and a steak. The second citation has great graphs breaking down the greenhouse gas sources for different types of food, comparing production with shipping, among other things.
My recommendation: try to eat local, look for foods grown without egregious amounts of fertilizer, but more importantly, stop eating beef (or at least drastically cut down on your beef consumption and stick with grass-fed). If you are going to eat meat, eat chicken, and don’t rely on eggs as a major protein source.
Note: The Pimentel numbers from the Cornell link have been updated in a 2004 in the Encyclopedia of Energy, where fossil fuel to protein energy ratios for grain-fed and grass-fed beef, eggs, grains and chicken were found to be as follows: 40:1, 20:1, 39:1, 2-3:1, 4:1
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