The Stats on Ethical Eating

August 11, 2008

From the Ethicurean, a recap and review of a carbon emissions study conducted by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, professors in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. The subject: The impact of agriculture on the environment. The upshot: Looks like locavores, whose diets are derived from proximal sources, are outpaced by vegan warriors, who win the battle on carbon consumption, no matter from whom they nab their grub. Turns out that food production, as opposed to food transportation, accounts for obscene amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are the metrics, as compared to the carbon output of a 25/mpg car, quoted from the Ethi article:

  • An “all local” diet is equivalent to driving 1,000 fewer miles per year
  • Shifting one day per week’s calories from red meat to chicken/fish/eggs is equivalent to driving 760 fewer miles per year
  • Shifting one day per week’s calories from red meat to a vegetable-based diet is equivalent to driving 1,160 fewer miles per year
  • Giving up red meat and dairy in favor of chicken/fish/eggs is equivalent to driving 5,340 fewer miles per year
  • Switching to a completely vegan diet is equivalent to driving 8,100 fewer miles per year

Yikes. I’m a vegetarian who strives to buy as much local food as is possible, but now my green guilt is setting in. Should I be shoveling seitan and soy cheese down me gullet to help stave off global warming? What’s a semi-conscious and fairly conscientious Living Smaller to do? Eat less Whidbey Island ice cream from the farmers market? Eat more spinach from California? Oh, Popeye.

For me, eating ethically = the Lernaean Hydra. Every time I slay one issue, another two pop up in its place. To wit, a simple situation, designed for your ethical scrutiny: I need sweet peppers for a dish I am preparing. Issue One: non-organic or organic? Non is much easier on the pocketbook, but not on the Earth, or on my body. Organic, on the other hand, is good for the land in which it is grown, the planet, me, etc. Issue One decided. Organic it is.

I go to the co-op. Here’s where Issue Two rears that proverbial ugly (Hydra) head. For my approval are two sets of organic peppers: one, a loose pepper grown in and shipped from Mexico. The other, a shrink-wrapped sister-pepper grown in Yakima, an ag-center in Washington state. For the first pepper, I’m paying to support farmers more than 2,000 miles away, as well as the cost of flying or trucking a load of peppers to Seattle. For the second, I’m supporting a (relatively) local farmer, but I’m also inadvertently forwarding that farmers use of shrink wrap, which is wholly unnecessary.

Which pepper do I purchase? One of each? Neither? See what I mean by Hydra? And that’s just the first head, folks; there are, like, 30 billion more to uncover.

Sometimes I stagnate. I want to do well. And then I buy a bag of Yogurt & Green Onion Kettle Chips, ’cause I love that flavor.

I think I need to go Stoic.


15 Responses to “The Stats on Ethical Eating”

  1. Michelle said

    I hear you. My household eats no red meat but we eat chicken (free-range, organic, local if possible) or fish (sustainably caught) once or twice a week. We try to buy the majority of our food from the farmers’ market each week, but we supplement with ingredients from Trader Joe’s and PCC. I have huge issues with the overabundance of packaging surrounding TJ’s produce, but the closest PCC is geographically inconvenient. So when I need a head of garlic and a tomato in between farmers’ market trips, do I run into Trader Joe’s, which is in the area where I have semiweekly meetings, or do I reserve a Zipcar for an hour just to buy my produce from the co-op? (Hint: I hate driving.)

    I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on the ways that my husband and I can decrease our impact on the earth without absolutely driving ourselves crazy. I enjoy baking bread and making homemade yogurt, so I do those things, feeling good about reducing packaging waste and miles my food has traveled. There’s a billion other things I know I should be doing or not doing, and I’m going to keep striving, but I’m not going to allow eco-guilt to take over my life. That’s my take on it.

    I think you’re doing pretty well. Savor every second of those kettle chips.

  2. EJ said

    No brainer for me – local, organic with a comment to the coop that shrink wrap is best avoided. Or grow your own, or buy lots when in season and can, freeze, dry.

    Given a choice I will always support local farmers as they are part of the local economy and if I don’t support them now they won’t be around when I need them.

    But eco-guilt can sure wear you down. In general I try for the consume less of everything/stay put method.

  3. absinthesparrow said

    Interesting stuff. I wonder if anyone’s got stats on growing your own? (Flora and fauna both).

  4. Bobbi said

    The year is 2008. The best of times, the worst of times. I do what I can each day and try to get satisfaction out of the changes I’m making. I’m not willing to go all the way back to some mythical better time. We need all the technological wonders that we have because they include things like lifesaving medicines and procedures. Be a good role model and your influence on the people around you will help the cause.

  5. Thanks for the responses, all. Michelle, I hear the Zipcar vs. TJ’s packaging frustration. While we live just 5 blocks from the central co-op (lucky ducks, I know), I understand that there are many neighborhoods in Seattle that don’t have walking access to groceries. Do you have any space to plant things at your place?

    EJ: Do you ever encounter any ethical eating issues that aren’t no brainers? Or are you committed to buying local and in season year-round? Let me know how you do it; I’ve found such difficulty finding local produce through the winter. Thanks!

    absinthe: I haven’t seen stats on that relative to driving; I do know that growing and eating one’s own fauna probably still requires more “carbon” than growing flora exclusively.

    Bobbi: Thanks for the encouragement. I do see your point about striving for the “mythical better time.” I think we tend to idealize the past — you know, when people grew all of their own food, sat around the fireplace singing songs, used the barter system, etc. Have you found that others have learned (and changed) based on your routines?

  6. Bobbi said

    I haven’t ‘come out’ to my friends and the world much yet. My husband is getting in the swing of recycling the junk mail, per my request. Some friends are vegetarians already, some buy organic. But we haven’t talked about global warming like we talk about other political issues. Being from LA, we talk about gas prices but not what happens after gas goes away. Currently I’ve met 2 real, as opposed to virtual, people who I’ve talked to about environmental concerns. Hmmm…You’re guilting me into speaking out more!!! Very Clever!

  7. I suppose speaking out is a prime way of making change. :)

  8. Pericles said

    Hello Livingsmall. I’m writing because I am wondering if while eating locally you also have open communications with the producers. I have cloned Ebay and made it so that food entrepreneurs and local farmers can sell direct to the end consumer via shipping, delivery, or pickup and I am wondering if you would know of any farmers who would be open to the idea of participating in a beta test of the website that I built. Let me know if you know of any farmers or food entrepreneurs. I can be reached by anyone with information at, our facebook page, or by cell phone: 847 636 9879. Let me know and again nice job on the blog. It is very informative and thought provoking.

    Pericles Tarsinos

  9. Thanks for the note, Pericles, and for the compliment on the blog. I do talk with the farmers at the market, but usually it is simple passing conversation. I would encourage you to look up your local farmers market association; they may be able to direct you to participating farms. Good luck with your project!

  10. Pericles said

    Thanks Living Small. I’m due into Seattle on the 12th of this month so I’ll start contacting the people running those associations. I hope that when Fooducopia gets going that we can mention your blog as a place to talk about locavorian ways and lifestyles. As well I hope that if you or people you may know are interested in working with local food producers to develop more of a network between farmers and the end consumer that you feel free to contact me at the email below. I think this is a key time in our economic history to establish the the direct fiscal relationship between local food producers and the end consumer.


  11. I’m flattered; thanks for offering to mention Living Small. I bet you’ll find some great resources through the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, as well as via the Washington State Farmers Market Association.

  12. Pericles Tarsinos said

    Hi Living Small. I was at the U District market the other weekend and had a chance to speak with some of the food entrepreneurs and farmers there. They were really nice and mentioned those two organizations. Thanks for the lead. Join us on Facebook if you get the chance so that we can get more people knowing about your blog. I hope that your holidays are peaceful.


  13. Wonderful! I’m glad you met up with some folks, Pericles. All best to you.

  14. Hi Living Small,

    I wanted to know how I go about showing your blog on our blog.

  15. Simple; all you have to do is create a link. Even easier: you could just type out my URL, and folks can cut and paste it into their browsers.

    Does that help?

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