When Tofu Haters Attack

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Only in the combative world of food politics could tofu get charged with killing the planet. The catalyst for this reactionary accusation was a recent Cranfield University study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund that stated that tofu eaters could, under very specific circumstances, actually harm the environment more than meat eaters.

Mainstream media reports pounced. "Meat free diets can be bad for the planet," the Daily Mail explained in its lead paragraph. The London Times similarly fronted the claim that "becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat." The Dublin Herald followed suit, adding, "The findings undermine claims by vegetarians that giving up meat automatically results in lower emissions and that less land is needed to produce food." The Australian press ... well, you can imagine.

Bloggers also jumped on the bandwagon, injecting a dose of attitude. Gleefully, they lambasted vegetarians for their now undermined eco-smugness. In a firstthings.com post, one blogger wrote, "Oh, the animal rightists are not going to like this," before reporting the Cranfield finding and assuring his readers that "what you eat will not cause global warming." An overtly anti-vegan blog ("people for the ethical eatment of animals") reduced the extensive study to its supposed essence with the headline: "Eat Tofu; Kill Earth."

Lost in the carnivore back-slapping, however, was a basic, if disturbing, fact: the assertion that tofu is more environmentally damaging than meat was a gross distortion of an otherwise important study. Entitled "How Low Can We Go" (referring to how low we can eat on the food chain), the report, part of an admirable effort to lessen the UK's food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent, never measured the relative environmental impacts of meat and tofu production. In fact, it had no interest in doing so. Instead, its purpose was to explore the impact of reducing meat consumption--something the authors earnestly advocated--on land use in countries outside the UK.

To reiterate, the study could not have been any clearer about the importance of lowering meat consumption. Opportunistic journalists and bloggers need only have persevered to page three to figure this out:

The fourth striking conclusion, again, one that previous studies have also drawn, is the important contribution that meat and dairy products make to the overall footprint of the foodchain. Emissions from livestock rearing alone account for over 57% of agricultural emissions.

So how did tofu get shanghaied into murdering the earth? In a word, cynicism.

"How Low Can We Go" is an important piece of research. Particularly commendable is the attention it paid to the unintended consequences of eating less meat. The authors make the insightful point that reducing meat consumption is not, in and of itself, a green decision. How we replace meat matters, too.

Basically, as the authors repeatedly stress, our meatless sustenance must be derived from a broad range of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and pulses. To illustrate this essential point, they noted that if UK residents reduced local meat consumption but substituted all those lost calories with highly processed meat substitutes, the effect could be worse than not giving up meat at all. This hypothetical scenario, mentioned on page nine, was by no means intended to support the argument that we'd be better off eating meat over tofu.

But that's exactly what happened. It was if a study on cardiovascular health urged daily exercise but noted that downhill skiing all day might ultimately be more dangerous than sitting on the couch, and was thus reported with the headline "Sitting on couch can be healthier than daily exercise." It's the sort of insidious cherry-picking that turns legitimate science into cheap ideology.

Even the study's lead author was moved to comment on the distortion. Dr. Donal Murphy-Bokern, referring specifically to the London Times report, explained that it "ignored the report's main results and conclusions and focused on a minor part of the study that looked at some potential but unlikely consequences of reducing meat consumption."

He might also have added that in the one comparative life cycle assessment between tofu and meat (in this case pork) researchers found that pork's "total environmental impact" was 37.5 percent greater than tofu's (click here for a PDF). But, alas, that study never made the headlines.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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