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Study: Vegan Diet Less Sustainable Than Previously Thought

The study confirms that a diet incorporating some meat and animal products may feed more people around the globe.

The research is based on carrying capacity of land, and finds a lacto-ovo vegatarian diet is best for feeding the most people possible with the lowest environmental impact.

From meatless Mondays to cows cutting the cheese, we’ve all heard it by now: eating less meat is better for our health, and the health of the planet.

But what about eating no animal products at all? According a recent study, a vegan diet isn’t as sustainable as you might think, especially when eating food produced in the the continental United States.

The study, published in Elementa, used biophysical simulation models to compare 10 eating patterns – including veganism, various vegetarian diets, four omnivorous diets, and a few others – and found that some diets that include meat are actually more sustainable, especially in the continental United States.

Land requirements of the 10 diet scenarios ranged from 0.13 to 1.08 hectares of land annually per person, and carrying capacity of the land varied from 402 to 807 million people, or between 1.3 and 2.6 times the 2010 U.S. population.

Carrying capacity of the land was generally increased for diets with less meat. So it’s surprising the research shows a vegan diet feeds fewer people than two of the vegetarian and all four of the omnivorous diets studied.

Carrying capacity was highest for the lacto-vegetarian diet.

Why? The answer lies in quality of land. The impacts on land are the lowest with a plant-based diet; however, livestock can be raised and bred on land that is not arable enough to grow plants.

The researchers stress that they do not encourage people to embrace a meat-heavy diet, and the most sustainable approach to eating meat is with moderation. Instead of quitting meat cold-turkey, consider flipping your portions – a mostly plant-based meal, with a side of meat at most.

Read More:

  • Being vegan isn’t as good for humanity as you think (Quartz)
  • Vegans vs. Vegetarians (Slate)
  • Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural lands: Ten diet scenarios (Elementa)
Taylor Killough

Taylor Killough has degrees anthropology and journalism. She has worked with the oral history project StoryCorps. A nomad at heart, she recently returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where's she's excited to have her own kitchen and garden again.

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