According to one study released last week, your answer doesn’t matter much: even if you walk to the burger joint, your food will have its own set of wheels—and an exhaust pipe.
While it’s now common knowledge that activities like driving conventional cars cause global warming, the environmental impact of what we eat continues to slip under the mainstream radar. The study, performed by Germany’s Institute for Ecological Economy Research, could change this with its comprehensive and comprehensible findings.
Instead of measuring the impact of diets with pounds or kilograms of carbon or methane produced in food manufacturing, the researchers have reduced their results to numbers that reflect the distance driven in a mid-sized car that would produce the same amount of greenhouse gas over the course of a year. They took into account the energy used to produce feed for livestock, all transportation involved in the process, and even the methane produced by animals themselves. The results are familiar: vegetarians and vegans, well… drive less.
Following an omnivorous diet for one year is comparable to driving 2,956 miles. Meanwhile, vegetarians travel half as far at 1,508 miles, and vegans rank a mere 391 miles. Furthermore, a plant-based diet consisting entirely of organic foods is equivalent to only 175 miles traveled—less than the free daily mileage limit on a ZipCar. For perspective, the average American drives around 12,000 miles each year.
While an omnivorous diet heavy on organic foods certainly reduces the toll on the planet’s odometer, the researchers insist that the production of beef and milk—organic or not—ought to be curtailed.