Is Tofu Bad For the Environment?

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Say it ain’t so! Tofu, that seemingly innocuous staple of vegetarian cooking, could actually be worse for the environment than meat. At least, that’s according to rampant media reports of a new study commissioned by WWF-UK and the Food Climate Research Network. Let’s take a closer look…

The 86-page study, entitled “How Low Can We Go,” was conducted by Cranfield University in the UK and found that tofu and other meat substitutes could be harmful to the environment due to issues like overseas deforestation, energy-intensive processing, and transportation.

But it also turns out the focus of the study was not squarely on tofu; rather, it addressed the UK food system and greenhouse gas emissions in a much broader sense. Few media reports mentioned the report’s extensive look at the negative impact of livestock, especially when raised outside the local food system.

We actually have the The Atlantic’s James McWilliams to thank for raising a critical voice amidst the anti-tofu frenzy. Though he took issue with the skewed media coverage, McWilliams did praise the study itself:

“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.

Where do you stand? If you’ve reduced or eliminated meat from your diet, have you replaced it with tofu or other meat substitutes? Are you concerned about tofu’s carbon footprint (as discussed in a recent TreeHugger post)? Perhaps the idea of another environmentally harmful food is overwhelming. Or perhaps you’re just doing the best you can without worrying too much.

Personally, I grew up with tofu as a staple food and don’t think I could entertain the idea of giving it up completely. However, over the past few years I have consciously reduced my consumption of soy products. As a vegetarian who once believed I was immune to the types of issues that concern meat eaters, it has been challenging (in a good way!) to address the fact that vegetarianism isn’t inherently harmless.

(Image: Flickr member House Of Sims licensed under Creative Commons)