After wasting less food and eating less meat, all other changes a person might make are marginal, experts said, among them eating locally, organically, and seasonally. Moreover, the climate impact of those food choices is in many cases contradictory. “I work in food, and it’s confusing for me,” Cabrera, of the NRDC, told me. “Is this lettuce better than this lettuce? Consumers are faced with so many choices, and it is really hard to know.”
Humanely raised, local meat, for instance, can produce more emissions than meat coming from a concentrated industrial operation, Clark told me. Cows in concentrated animal-feeding operations are generally slaughtered at 12 to 18 months of age, while cows raised exclusively on pastures typically live twice as long. “The cow that lives for longer is going to emit more methane over the course of its lifespan,” he said, though he added that there were still compelling reasons to opt for the local beef.
Similarly, growing a given amount of organic produce usually requires more emissions and acres of land than growing the same amount using conventional farming methods. One study conducted in Sweden, for instance, showed that organic peas and wheat have a bigger climate impact than their conventionally farmed cousins.
That said, when it comes to the emissions related to shipping food around the world, experts argue that—surprisingly—local is not always better. There’s a certain uncanny decadence to eating Peruvian avocados and Chinese grapes in the dead of winter, or opening a bottle of French Beaujolais or a package of Scottish smoked salmon at will. But transporting food around the world tends to make up only a small share of a given product’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. What you are eating and how it was farmed is far more important than how it got to you, and imported food typically has a low carbon impact.
For all that, experts said there are good reasons to opt for organic, locally produced, seasonal food, even if it might not be as efficient to produce, or might not have the lowest greenhouse-gas emissions. Many smaller-scale operations outside Big Ag produce food without pesticides, without monoculture, with manure instead of chemical fertilizers, and with respect for biodiversity and soil health. Those are all important facets of environmental preservation too.
Complicating things, what’s good for the environment isn’t always what’s good for animal welfare. When it comes to eating animals, “unfortunately, the cruelty scale is the flip of the emissions scale,” Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit that advocates for better conditions for animals raised in industrial environments, told me. A family can easily eat a chicken in a single night, but might struggle to eat a whole cow over the course of a year. Moreover, transportation and processing is much rougher on birds, which have delicate bodies. (Each year, more than 1 million chickens die en route to slaughter, and half a million are not actually dead when they hit the scalding tank.) For these reasons, a chicken breast represents much more suffering than a steak, even though the steak is worse for the planet. But the fact remains: The fewer animals you eat, the fewer die, and the better off the planet is.