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Source: 

Tactic: 

  • Misleading caloric comparison of foods with wildly different caloric densities
  • Confirmation bias (media twisting research for click bait)

Truth: 

The media coverage was actually based on a misleading press release that was not written by the study's authors, who then issued an official response addressing the media confusion and hysteria.

Obviously no one eats lettuce for calories. This would be like saying soda is better for the environment than water, on a caloric basis. Per Modern Farmer, "You’d have to assume that any human would replace a protein source with a mostly water-filled leafy vegetable, which not even the USDA is recommending." Grist points out that you'd have to eat 93 cups of shredded lettuce in order to equal the number of calories in four pieces of bacon, which is absurd.

But the study doesn’t suggest that vegetarianism is bad, or state that lettuce is “worse for the environment” than bacon.
— Modern Farmer's Dan Nosowitz

A "silly" comparison and "horrified" researchers

According to Modern Farmer: "The authors of the response seem almost horrified that the study and its press release might imply to casual consumers of science and food news that a vegetarian diet could be more harmful to the environment than a meat-based diet."

They went on to summarize the authors' response as making the following points:

  • That the press release wildly leapt to conclusions that the data couldn’t support;
  • that the data itself does not account for several variables that may skew the results; and
  • that it is basically silly in every way to try to compare bacon to lettuce in nutrition or greenhouse gas emissions or anything else.

Excerpts from the researchers' response:

  • “Contrary to the media’s misinterpretation of the science, the climate impact of pork is over four times higher per serving than vegetables (4). Dairy’s impact is over five times higher, and the impact of meat from ruminant animals (e.g., beef) is over 23 times higher."
     
  • "In the USA, there is considerable political opposition to addressing climate change, and strong cultural barriers to reducing meat consumption. Sending a message indicating meat may be a preferable food choice, without adequate supporting evidence, runs counter to climate mitigation efforts and the best interests of future generations."

Bam.

Sadly however, as the saying goes, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. Many of the articles remain online, unchanged. And in arguments against veganism, it is not uncommon for this falsehood to continue to be confidently asserted as though it were truth. 

As an aside, this idea that vegetarians and vegans should be targeted with any bad news about lettuce, even if there were some, is bizarre to begin with. Vegans truly don't eat astronomical amounts of lettuce; sure, maybe more than the average omnivore, but mostly to dress vegan burgers and sandwiches, and salads that consist of a heck of a lot less than 93 cups of lettuce, we assure you.

 
It is absurd to compare the environmental impacts between bacon and lettuce when you’re using calories as the denominator. A serving of lettuce has fewer calories than a stick of gum... In general, no matter what denominator you use, the emissions from plant-based foods are going to be lower, and this study is consistent with that.
— Brent Kim, program officer for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food Production and Public Health Program
 
 
 

The Facts

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The Myths

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