Breeding fears of a changing climate and food raised "unnaturally," promoters of vegetarianism and organic foods argue that we should go vegan, or eat "organic" to save the planet.
Visiting Fellow Kenneth P. Green
First, let's look at whether or not going vegan would stabilize the climate. Two vegetarian researchers recently published an article estimating that the typical American with a mixed diet puts out 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide each year than do people who consume only plants, which adds up to about 6 percent of U.S. emissions, but only 1.6 percent of worldwide emissions.
But U.S. greenhouse emissions are a shrinking part of the world's inventory, as China and India are growing quickly. Whatever benefit that might come of American's going vegan would barely be noticeable, and quickly erased by emissions of developing countries.
Now, let's look at the argument that eating organic food will help save the climate. Organic food sellers claim that organic farming is better than traditional farming because it uses less energy and chemicals to grow food. Some even claim that research published in Science showed organic farming was 50 percent more efficient than traditional farming. But what organic food purveyors don't talk about is that the same study showed crop yields were 20 percent lower.
When you factor that into the equation, organic farming was only found to be about 19 percent more energy efficient per unit produced than traditional farming. Or is it?
As science writer Ron Bailey points out, the comparison wasn't really apples to apples. State-of-the-art organic farms were compared to older methods of traditional farming, not modern systems.
Traditional farming has become much more energy efficient than it was 20 years ago. And whatever gain organic farming produces has to be seen in a holistic context.
The same Science study found that after 21 years of organic farming, nutrients in the soil were being depleted badly: they were 34 percent to 51 percent lower than the nutrient levels found in traditionally farmed soils.
As chemist John Emsley observes in Nature, "Humans have a stark choice to make: do we farm four hectares of land 'organically' to feed 40 souls, or do we farm one hectare 'artificially' — thereby leaving the other three to natural woodland and wildlife?"
Finally, let's ask whether organic food is healthier. While the purveyors of organics claim that organic foods are more nutrient rich, or lower in pesticide contamination, the data don't back them up.
The Institute of Food Technologists, an international, not-for-profit scientific society points out, "Organic foods are not superior in nutritional quality or safety when compared against conventional foods, yet organics do have the potential for greater pathogen contamination, and therefore greater risk of food poisoning."
Mark McLellan, an agricultural expert at Texas A&M University and former institute president concluded, "Conventionally grown foods that utilize well-researched techniques including biotechnology benefit all consumers worldwide with a more abundant and economical food supply, foods of enhanced nutritional quality, and fresh fruits and vegetables with improved shelf life."
So, are vegetarianism and organic foods going to save the planet? I don't think so. They'll do virtually nothing for the climate, they'll deplete the soil, they'll require us to use more land area to grow the same amount of food, and we'll be exposed to equal or greater amounts of pathogenic bacteria, viruses and so forth.
Waiter? I'll have the steak, please.
Kenneth P. Green is a visiting fellow at AEI.