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Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):664S-668S.

Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices.

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  • 1Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics: Center for Sustainable Development, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Quantitative environmental evaluations of meat, fresh vegetables, and processed protein based on soybeans suggest that the environmental burden of vegetarian foods is usually relatively low when production and processing are considered. The environmental comparison of cheese varieties made from cow milk and directly from lupine and the evaluation of energy inputs in fish protein and vegetable protein also suggest an environmental advantage for vegetarian food. In the evaluation of processed protein food based on soybeans and meat protein, a variety of environmental impacts associated with primary production and processing are a factor 4.4-> 100 to the disadvantage of meat. The comparison of cheese varieties gives differences in specific environmental impacts ranging between a factor 5 and 21. And energy use for fish protein may be up to a factor 14 more than for protein of vegetable origin. Assessment suggests that on average the complete life cycle environmental impact of nonvegetarian meals may be roughly a factor 1.5-2 higher than the effect of vegetarian meals in which meat has been replaced by vegetable protein. Although on average vegetarian diets may well have an environmental advantage, exceptions may also occur. Long-distance air transport, deep-freezing, and some horticultural practices may lead to environmental burdens for vegetarian foods exceeding those for locally produced organic meat.

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