By Sherry Listgarten
A Primer on PrimeUploaded: Feb 24, 2019
A few years after grad school, I was living in an old ranch house in Los Altos Hills with some friends. Two of us biked to work along the windy roads near the house before reaching bigger roads with bike lanes. One morning on my way to work, I noticed some new handmade signs posted at intervals along the road. Decorated with cartoon pictures of squirrels, they said in bold letters: “Save Our Squirrels! Swerve!”. As I hugged the edge of the narrow road, this seemed like remarkably bad advice, and when I got home later that day, my biking housemate was thinking the same thing. So we mulled it over a bit and decided to make our own signs, which we put up in the wee hours of the morning. Decorated with cute pictures of cows, they declared “Save Our Cows! Eat Squirrel!” Alas, the signs didn’t last long….
All of which is a long way of explaining why I laughed when I read recently that some fine dining establishments are serving squirrel these days, in an effort to provide more sustainable options to diners. I’m not saying that’s the way to go, but less beef on the plate is definitely a good thing. Here’s why.
About 15% of global greenhouse emissions come from food production and distribution, and two-thirds of that is solely from cattle.(2) Land use is a big reason why. An incredible 41% of all the land in the contiguous United States is used for livestock, either pasture or feed.(4) That means instead of the land being forested, with rich soil that stores carbon, we have open pastures, disturbed soil, and emission-inducing fertilizers. On top of that (literally!), the cows themselves generate large amounts of methane via their digestion and manure (see previous blog).
While dairy is a part of this problem, the bigger problem is beef. To see just how bad beef emissions are, take a look at this chart from the World Resources Institute.(1) It shows emissions per gram of protein; a per-calorie or per-serving chart is similar.
And boy do we eat a lot of beef. The average American today eats 54 pounds each year, more than four times the global average, and twice that of Europeans.(1) How do we get down to a planet-friendly 12 pounds, which is about a quarter pound per week?(6) Vegetarian and vegan diets are great, but may not be realistic for all families. What if each household were instead to replace most beef with any lower-emission protein source? Ideas I’ve heard include limiting meat to evening meals, and saving beef for Sundays. What might work for you? By one calculation, beef requires 28 times more land, 6 times more fertilizer, and 11 times more water than an equivalent portion of poultry or eggs. It’s time to eat differently!
I spoke with the managers of a few local meat departments. One observed that people have been moving away from red meat for a while, for health reasons. He advocates for moderation, choosing good meat when you do eat it, and avoiding waste. As one example, his family tends to eat a good steak just once every six weeks or so. A manager of the big Safeway on San Antonio says their red meat business has been pretty steady since they opened about five years ago. People don’t ask him about climate impact. But he has seen a steadily increasing interest in the plant-based meat they sell (Beyond Meat, see below), so much that they recently started offering sausages in addition to burgers.
Behind the scenes, cattle farmers are working to lower production emissions. One interesting idea is to use feed additives that decrease the amount of methane produced during digestion. Seaweed and coriander are among those showing promising results. There are also many ways to enhance land use, like planting trees or setting up solar panels on the pasture. California is aggressively trying to tackle methane emissions, and SB 1383 is driving changes in manure management, such as more use of anaerobic digesters.
Food companies are exploring ideas to help us transition away from beef. If you love a good hamburger, you might be interested in these burgers made of pea protein, from a company called Beyond Meat. They are available at local groceries; I found these next to the hamburgers at Safeway for $5.99. Calories, protein, and fat content are similar, but the plant-based burgers have just half the saturated fat, no trans-fat, more than twice the iron, and no cholesterol.
They look pretty similar! But what do they taste like? Turns out they sizzle in the pan, brown decently (in a mix of butter and oil), and smell and taste pretty burger-like (though admittedly we haven’t had burgers in a while).
When served with grilled onions, cheddar, special sauce, lettuce, and a bun, my daughter thought they were pretty indistinguishable from the real thing. “I would totally eat this again,” she said. “It didn’t taste weird at all.” That is high praise from this teen!
They are not cheap, at $6-$7 for two, but can be a good option when rotated in with inexpensive alternatives like beans or turkey.
I find all of this pretty encouraging. Americans eat an enormous amount of beef, yet it’s tough on our bodies and the planet. With many better alternatives, cutting beef is a fast and easy way to make a big dent in our emissions.
P.S. In case you are curious, grass-fed beef is not a win. Nor is organic necessarily lower in emissions, because it does not imply practices like methane-lowering feed additives, anaerobic digestion of manure, or improvements to land use such as silvopasture.
Notes and References
1. https://www.wri.org/shiftingdiets (2016). Comprehensive analysis of the American diet compared with the global diet, looking not only at beef consumption specifically but at over-consumption more generally. This is an easier to read summary.
2. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode (2013). Summary of a UN Food and Agriculture Organization study on livestock emissions.
3. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/less-beef-less-carbon-ip.pdf (2017). Overview of how recent changes in the American diet have affected emissions. Interesting fact: Cutting US beef consumption by 20% recently was the equivalent of removing about 3 million cars from the road.
4. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use (2018). Fascinating, graphical overview of how land is allocated in the United States. More land is devoted to growing livestock feed than to food for Americans, and even more is designated for pasture.
5. https://data.oecd.org/agroutput/meat-consumption.htm (2018). Chart showing per-capita meat consumption worldwide, for different types of meat.
6. https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT (2019, free registration required). Comprehensive proposal for a healthy, sustainable diet. Section 4, on how to effect such a change, describes some promising analogues.
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