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Do the Math, Eat More Vegetables

When you crunch the numbers, a plant-based diet always wins. Here's more proof.

Gidon Eshel was born in Israel on a kibbutz and, as a kid, he worked on a dairy farm there. He then did the appropriate time in leafy New England universities and became a geophysicist, whose work has focused on quantifying the Mean American Diet with complex mathematical formulas. He joked that he's 80 percent numbers and 20 percent farmer.

At last year's PopTech conference, Michael Pollan suggested that "a vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius." While his pithy quote went viral, it was incorrect. And when Adam Pasick questioned the math, he called Eshel for a fact-check.

This year, Eshel made a quick presentation showing how meat-based diets far exceed the reactive Nitrogen (Nr) and acreage used in creating plant-based diets. His three-pronged solution: 1) eat plants, 2) avoid animal products, and 3) favor legislation promote one and two. I caught up with him afterward and he told me that making a difference can't just affect diners at a few restaurants—it's got to cover a lot of ground.

"That’s the thing with food," Eshel says. "If you can’t see it from a satellite, then it’s not making a difference."


While plant-based diets may be the “low-hanging fruit” for eating environmentally, he also said not all fruits and vegetables are created equal. Below is a chart that depicts the Nr and yield per acre of various plants and vegetables (those represented with blue dots have a higher footprint than black dots). It's certainly worth thinking about.

Photograph by Flickr user (cc) kk

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