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Crunching the numbers on a vegan in a Hummer

October 26, 2009

Photo by Kris Krüg

(Updated below with Michael Pollan’s response)

You want some petroleum with that Big Mac?

Journalist and food writer Michael Pollan broke down the hidden cost of America’s best-known burger on Saturday to an eager audience at the Poptech conference. He traced the Big Mac’s origins all the way back to the oil fields, used to make fertilizer that is crucial to the corn grown for cows in massive feeds lots.

“Our meat eating is one of the most important contributors we make to climate change,” said Pollan, who is best known for his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

“A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius.”

It’s a great line and quite a mental image, one that wowed the audience and quickly spread on Twitter. Too bad it’s not true.

Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago published a 2005 paper in the journal Earth Interactions that looked at the relative carbon footprints of plant-based and red-meat diets.

They found that the difference between an heavy meat-eating diet and a vegan diet was about 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year. The difference between a Prius and an SUV (they used a Suburban, which gets about the same mileage as a Hummer) was 4.76 tons per year.

Pollan’s claim, said Eshel, “is emphatically wrong. If you’re looking at the mean American driving habits and eating habits, it’s not even close.”

“In my heart I’m flatly on the Pollan side, but I’m a scientist and I don’t like to play fast and loose with numbers,” he added. “It’s like death panels in the healthcare debate. We don’t want to get into hyperbolic statements that are numerically unsound.”

To be sure, the calculations behind food-related carbon footprints can be complex. The impact of a Big Mac includes the carbon footprint of the cattle feed and the fertilizer used to grow it, the fuel burned to get the animal to a feedlot and then to market, and the animal’s emissions of methane gas, which can be 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

UPDATE: Michael Pollan has asked Poptech not to post his presentation without removing the statistic about the vegan Hummer driver.

“After digging in to it further, and consulting Gidon Eschel, I don’t feel comfortable defending it,” he wrote to Reuters in an email. “It’s much more important to keep the focus on the central thrust of the environmental case against eating industrial meat, which is not in dispute and certainly does not stand or fall on the case of the vegan Hummer driver.”

“Thanks for your doggedness on this matter, which we can hope will stop this meme before it hurts somebody,” he added.

The blogger Fat Knowledge did a separate calculation of the numbers after Eshel and Martin’s paper was published, and concluded:

Going from a Mad Meat Eater diet to a Vegan diet saves 6.5 tonnes of CO2 a year while going from a Hummer to a Prius saves 6.4 tonnes. Given a margin of error on the values, I call that a tie.

The numbers have also shifted as gas mileage improves. Using Eshel and Martin’s calculations with the current EPA mileage statistics, a 2010 model Hummer getting 14-15 miles per gallon has a carbon footprint of 4.3 to 4.7 tons per year, depending on whether it’s an automatic or manual transmission model. (The EPA’s own carbon footprint calculations, which include the manufacture of the vehicle, are significantly higher)

A 2010 Prius getting 50 miles per gallon has a footprint of 1.4 tons. The difference is 2.6 to 3.3 tons per year — not very far from the 2 ton difference between a meat-eater and a vegan.

Click her for more Poptech coverage.

Comments

Dear everybody interested enough in C footprint to exhibit the patience needed to sift through this,

First, I admire your perseverance. I do this for a living, you guys simply do it, ’cause you like it, and ’cause you care. That’s incredible, and admirable.

To be clear – I am the Eshel mentioned in the piece. No longer at Chicago, but rather a physics Prof. at Bard College, on the Hudson, in NY.

Now for substance, and I have two points I wish to get across.

(1) The importance of Michael Pollan to this discussion is second to none. With his lucid, evocative, writing, and his
prolific output, he has really changed the scene. Nobody – not Alice Waters, not Diet for Small Planet, not anything – has contributed more to making Americans realize how toxic their diet is, in so many different ways. My Pollan’s favorite is not the Omnivore, a superb book in its own right, but rather the Botany of Desire. The idea that corn and potatoes have essentially domesticated us is up there with the wheel. OK, maybe that’s a bit of a hyperbolic overstatement for effect (how apropo…); But the sentiment is definitely there, and correct. I was really terrified when I read in a recent Pollan interview that he is off the food topic and on to greener pastures. Get those roadblocks in place. Michael’s contribution to food discussions are 2nd to non, and worthy, easily, of a MacArthur.

(2) Notwithstanding the above, Michael (and fat or phat or whatever is that unsubstantiated blog) made a mistake. An honest mistake. Even Dick Cheney has made one or two…

To be clear: you cannot be an environmentalist, you can’t even remotely claim to be anything but a selfish lunatic, if you drive a Hummer. This is true for numerous important reasons, and it really makes no difference whatsoever if it is running on hydrogen, like Arnie’s (how in God’s name do we get that compressed H2? and if it’s using PV panels – do manufacturing those come free of C charge?!)

On the other hand, much as I favor plant based diets, you CAN be a meat eating environmentalist. You will have to work extra hard in other fronts, but it’s not impossible.

The numbers Adam provides, following our discussions, are correct and sound. They tell the story, one chapter of which is a Pollan factual slip. It doesn’t take away any of the punch of his basic point or of his monumentally important role as a public intellectual focused on the confluence of food and the environment.

Posted by Gidon Eshel | Report as abusive
 

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being vegan AND driving a prius, which is my personal environmental choice.

 

Humankind is experiencing a conscious awakening to the necessity of changing how we view the planet and the “role” we play in our ecosystem. If we don’t awaken soon enough there won’t be much left to save. Witty quips get a lot of tweets, but facts are what we must build on. Keep on crunchin’.

 

Maybe if you just get people started doing math on it, and then respond honestly to challenges, that can be progress. (You should, somewhere, state your assumptions and cite any sources.) Also, we’re no longer hippies toddling through the ’70s with awakening slogans. Math and science are back, they’re just frequently on our side.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive
 

Or you can ride a bike and eat local veggies and meats!

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive
 

How fake are the environtmental benefits of cash for clunkers. It takes 10 tons of oil to make the the average car, with less than 0.5 ton recovered after costs.Most European clunkers, however,return a better MPG than modern US vehicles. Given that all clunkers, from wherever, are at the bottom of what accountants call the depreciation curve, it is self evident that running a clunker, as in third world, has to be better environmentally than using 10 tons of oil to make a smug Prius.Unless the clunker is a Hummer!

Posted by J.Purkiss | Report as abusive
 

More numbers to convince the mindless masses they need to be be just. like. you.

Carbon footprint this, climate change that. This planet wiped out 250,000 lives within several hours not long ago. Daily natural “disasters” only get reported when they make for good ratings. I don’t see how the planet needs us to “save” it. It can do a fine job of lowering our carbon emissions via straight up eradication. The evil mother has been doing it for billions of years and all the egomaniacs in the world can’t change that. So to all of the “smarter than you” crowd out there: I hate this planet and aim to destroy as much of it as I can before it destroys me…and there is nothing you can do to stop me……MUUUUUUHHHHHWWWWWAAAAAAAAAA. Now I’m off for a Whopper.

Posted by Jonathan | Report as abusive
 

The bottom line is that there is no “easy out.” Its not ok to just buy a prius, or just become a vegan, and then stop thinking about these issues. While Pollan tried to make clearer the point about meat eating, the media wanted it to be about catch phrases and “outing” him for mis-representing.

So the man mis-spoke. The point is that we are only just now beginning the conversation around how our food choices affect our environment.

 

Carbon footprint is only one aspect. Meat production, especially in America, is cruel and unnatural. It’s killing the oceans and forests and all other life that depends on them. We wipe out predators that threaten the meat that we don’t need. H1N1 is a by-product of animal agriculture. If you’re still eating meat, you’re the problem.

 

In order to further the cause, I promise to stop breathing and am instructing all cells in my body to cease the Krebs cycle. Do I win the moral accounting game?

Posted by ERM | Report as abusive
 

Lately a very strong statement came from WorldWatch.org , saying 51% of green house gases is caused by raising animals, 50 billion cows, not counting those that doesn’t make it to the slaughterhouse, times 4 stomachs, plus few more billions pigs and several billion of birds producing nice clusters of methane and nitrous oxide, and unnumbered marine life that is causing death zones and ecosystems to collapse, is really eating meat sustainable? local grown meat, produce less methane? Do we really need that piece of animal or dairy? Just search for meat-cancer, meat-green house gases, meat-deforestation, and the answer is no! Vegan fare and organic farming, no matter if it is health wise, economy wise, green wise, is a very wise choice.

 

Really happy to see that this stats which has been floating around for ages get fact-checked and debunked. Extra glad to see Pollan have the intellectual honesty to admit to the error and ask it to be removed from the permanent record of the talk, so that the misconception doesn’t spread.

Nice work to everyone involved.

 

Check out this uplifting and inspiring video on why people choose vegan: http://veganvideo.org/

Posted by JC | Report as abusive
 

OK, so first it gets debunked, and then it gets…bunked? This article contradicts itself. Can we get a detailed analysis of exactly HOW the Co2 cost was calculated by the different parties involved? Perhaps either source’s calculation is failing to account for something, or perhaps both are? Did the University of Chicago factor in the deforestation caused by the meat industry for cattle grazing and cattle feed land? I suspect there is more to the story, and this debunking seems very suspicious.

Posted by Athonwy | Report as abusive
 

So for all of you driving those “environmental safe” Prius cars. Where does your electric power come from?……..coal. What happens to your fuel cell battery when the car is scrapped?….that is very harmful and toxic to the environment. I believe Toyota has a huge area that is very toxic from it’s R&D site in Canada because of the fuel cell batteries. Why do you people hate everyone else? YOU are the problem with the world, not the people servicing as a productive member of society. Just because some people CHOOSE to eat meat and you don’t, that is not a reason to hate. Nature understands this, why can’t you all.

Posted by LC | Report as abusive
 

Gidon Says: “On the other hand, much as I favor plant based diets, you CAN be a meat eating environmentalist. You will have to work extra hard in other fronts, but it’s not impossible.”

While I agree with all of your other comments, this seems contradictory, and self satisfying. Is it because you refuse to give up meat that you would defend its consumption? The environmental impact of meat production is obvious to all who have cared to look. Your logic is standard of the many I know who claim to be environmentalist, but refuse to embrace local whole food veganism as a critical component to their ideology.

 

“…Extra glad to see Pollan have the intellectual honesty (GET CAUGHT ON TAPE JUST MAKING SOMETHING UP) to admit to the error (“I DON”T FEEL COMFORTABLE DEFENDING IT” IS ADMITTING AN ERROR?”) and ask it to be removed from the permanent record of the talk, so that the misconception doesn’t spread (OR SO HE WON”T BE PUBLICLY EMBARRASSED)

Wow, I wish you were my dad when I was a teenager. I’d have gotten away with murder.

Look, the guy was talking out of his ass and got busted. Not a big deal, but if Pollan has to suffer some mild embarrassment for it, good. People follow his advice like slaves, he should be more careful.

Posted by LB | Report as abusive
 

Driving a prius is only environmentally sound when compared to driving other hulking hunks of metal. But the CO2 emissions, not to mention the environmental costs from production and disposal, are still massive.

Get a bicycle.

Posted by Ronald McArthur | Report as abusive
 

Matthew ~ your bike riding and buying local fruits and veggies and meat is a good idea but not possible for all of us.I would be a lot healthier if that were possible for me and i would love to do just that.I’m not a big meat eater, it makes me feel run down physically.That is a dream of mine to be able to live on fresh fruit and veggies.
I live to far away from any stores and do not drive.I have to depend on others for their kindness to help me with my shopping and everything else.
Some people say they dont see how i do it without a car.
but so far people have been very kind to me.and there are times i do without things to keep from asking for help so much.
Your idea sounds like a dream to me…

Posted by janey | Report as abusive
 

I’m a meat-eating Prius driver. I also bike sometimes. Glad to see my lifestyle isn’t destroying the planet. Especially considering I have a website called unvegan.com…

 

There is a very important point to all this, that the ecologists always conveniently forget, especially if they want to extort more tax from the population: when it comes to vehicles, mileage is everything. If your Hummer’s in the garage and you walk to the shops, you’re polluting less than the smart-arse in the Prius who drives. FACT.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive
 

Crazy environmentalist religion rubbish, you are all going to die soon anyway during the great cleanup. so stop worrying and eat a BigMac.

Posted by god | Report as abusive
 

If all this really is so very important, then why does it sound so hollow and distant? I do very much agree with some of the comments regarding the observation that Nature seem to have it’s own way of ballancing things out. But at this stage I honestly believe the whole discussion to be inconclusive (sigh).

Posted by Peter Schwarz | Report as abusive
 

Mankind has had a positive carbon footprint since domesticating animals and plants 6000 years ago.

I’m in favor of reducing emissions for political reasons, not environmental ones. Energy independence would be fantastic for my country.

But the idea that reducing emissions will save the world is delusional. At best, it would just delay climate change, since reduced emissions are still emissions. The only way to stop or reverse any climate change is to develop atmospheric scrubbers. Plants do it. We can do it.

 

has anyone compared the carbon footprint of tofu/tempeh to meat? That should be the true comparison.

Posted by boodles | Report as abusive
 

Too many people think of climate change in terms of sources and sinks, and neglect to remember that carbon moves in a cycle. All ruminants produce methane as a by product of their digestion of plant material. Ruminant methane is produced by bacteria in the animals rumen, animals that include bison, wildebeest, camels, llamas, giraffes, and all 90+ species of antelope.

Once we recognise that ruminants have been on the planet for over 10 million years, it becomes apparent that Nature must have evolved some way to deal with this methane by now. And in the serendipity that we so often find in Nature, there are bacteria in the soil that oxidise this methane.

Recent research here in Australia has shown that for some of our soils each hectare (2.5 acres) can oxidise more methane in a single day than a cow emits in a whole year! http://www.abc.net.au/rural/sa/content/2 009/08/s2651525.htm

Please do not hold the animals responsible for the way we humans manage them. Well managed animals grazing in a way that mimics natural function can and must play a strong and positive role in reversing desertification, restoring soil carbon, and addressing climate change. Take a look at http://www.soilcarbon.com.au for more.

 

Why not do a really thorough and realistic comparison of the average western high meat diet with a healthy well-balanced vegan diet? Include land and water use (from paddock to plate), land degradation, biodiversity loss, effluent pollution, crops grown for livestock feed due to lack of natural pasture from drought plus the growing trend toward feedlots and intensive production, human health issues like heart disease, obesity, colorectal cancer, oh and why not also throw a few animal cruelty issues for good measure?

Albert Einstein once said “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

Posted by Harmless | Report as abusive
 

There is no more beautiful sound than someone who loves to hear his own voice in full pseudo-intellectual erudition, one hand clapping or one hand clapping himself on the back.
Please pass the porterhouse quickly. My Hummer is running and double parked.

Posted by passmetheporterhouseplease | Report as abusive
 

This article is also well worth a read…

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/31/opinio n/31niman.html

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