According to a recent study done by the WWF, meat substitutes such as tofu are far worse on the environment than meats. Tofu production requires more land to be converted to farmland, raising the risk of deforestation. Meat substitutes are also highly processed and require a large amount of energy to produce.
To reduce the carbon footprint of our diets, eating less meat is still the name of the game, but Tofu is not necessarily the best meat substitute. The soy from which tofu is made is often a monocrop, the maintenance of which requires the use of pesticides. Soy does contribute to deforestation, but only 80% of that crop feeds our animals for slaughter, which means that meat, not tofu, is still the biggest contributer to soy-related environmental damage. Furthermore, CNN reported that in 2008 no deforested land was used to grow soy, due to a moratorium on soy. If you like tofu and want to keep it in your diet, buy local and buy organic.
Interesting question. I think the answers above have covered a good portion of the complexity of this issue. I will add one comment regarding the more general question of “is this food environmentally friendly?” as it is one that comes up frequently. There are no black and whites in this realm, only shades of gray. Every creature on earth impacts its envrinment and nourishing ourselves is one of the most signicant ways we interact with and impact this earth. The best we can do is ensure that the cultivation of our food does not reduce the resiliency of an agro-ecosystem and to perhaps even enhance the productivity, health and diversity of an agro-ecosystem. So when it comes to eating rightly (if such a practice exists) you will have to constantly be evaluating to determine what makes the most sense considering the context. Genearlly, speaking, eating whole foods (foods that you can easily identify where they came and have not been highly processed–such as broccoli, beans, eggs, meat) is a good place to start. It is also very important to consider where and how the food is grown. The higher up the food chaing the food products are, the more important this is– grass fed beef that your neighbor raises is categorically different than grain fed beef raised in a confined animal feeding operation; eggs you gather from your own chickens is again categorically different than eggs from factory farmed layer hens. Tofu is an interesting example because it is a highly processed bean product and quite a bit of the nutrient value from the soy bean is lost in the process of making tofu, yet for some reason it is quite popular in health food circles. Same with soy milk. Just from an energy and health perspecitve, it would make more sense to eat soy beans than tofu.
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