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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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A Primer on Prime

Uploaded: 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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Posted by Reader X, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Feb 24, 2019 at 8:07 am

One of the more reasonable and helpful things a person can do would be to eat more beans (excellent source of vegetable protein and low on the food pyramid).

I always have some beans with my breakfast.

Including more beans in your diet is not particularly difficult and it certainly isn't a financial burden. Beans - either dried or canned - are shelf stable and thus storage is not an issue. If you cook your beans from dried ones, the cooked beans can handle being frozen very easily.

If you think cooking beans takes too long, they cook much faster in a pressure cooker. The canned ones are pretty much nutritionally same as the dried ones, so the former are certainly an option.

If the typical American could replace half of their animal meat servings with the equivalent in beans, the planet would be way better off.

It's actually a far more economical option anyhow.

Posted by Good for Earth. Good for Me., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 24, 2019 at 11:25 am

Good for Earth. Good for Me. is a registered user.

We have been off beef for decades now. I still occasionally eat pork (once every few months. We eat poultry a few nights a week and veggie or fish entrees the other nights. Breakfast, snacks and lunch are mostly veggie with some eggs and dairy scattered here and there--and occasional dinner leftovers that add some meat at lunchtime. I have reduced all meat and carb portions which is really helping us maintain a healthy body weight as we age.

I agree. Folks should do what works for them, but cutting back where you can is gratifying. I love our living, breathing planet. Let's take care of her!

I am finding that a sustainable lifestyle is also healthier for me. I am eating better, exercising more (walking and biking more frequently). I feel great! What's good for Earth seems to also be good for me.

Posted by eileen, a resident of another community,
on Feb 26, 2019 at 8:29 am

Oops, I'm busted! Just cooked 13 lamb chops, have some leftover lamb stew in the frig, and that "grass fed" label I prided myself on doesn't make it any better. I had NO idea that lamb was #1 on the emissions scale. But it's per gram of protein and lambs are pretty small--does that help? Lucky I don't like goat, or even goat cheese.
Tonight it'll be eggs, tomorrow......leftover eggs?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 26, 2019 at 9:39 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@eileen -- It's not obvious, is it? Wouldn't it be nice if there were some kind of label? One of the helpful things about a carbon tax is everything is effectively labeled, via price. (Though in this case it would have to be a methane tax!)

Lamb and goat are both in the same category as beef. They are ruminants (so they breathe/burp out methane) and they graze (a poor use of our land, wrt emissions). Because cattle are often in feedlots (not grazing), beef is slightly better than lamb as far as emissions go. And lamb is more often imported, also boosting emissions.

There are some other non-obvious high-emission foods, specific types of seafood. There's no way we can expect people to figure all this out. But the good thing is if we just focus on beef, we'll get a long way there. Or, in your case, maybe lamb too :)

Posted by I'm a Reducetarian, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 26, 2019 at 3:01 pm

Thanks Sherry for your well researched article. Your recommendation to reduce meat rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach to meat consumption is practical and attainable.

Posted by I Shoot My Meat, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 26, 2019 at 7:12 pm

I hunt for my meat...deer, elk, pheasant, grouse & doves. Hunting season is one of the highlights of my life as I get to use my rifles & shotguns to procure wild game.

With a large freezer, one can pretty much store enough meat for well over a year & then it's time to go hunting again!

We grow our own potatoes in the backyard & only have to buy vegetable produce.

Posted by Lens, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2019 at 10:17 am

@ Hunter Joe, More power to you, but the meat I enjoy eating would be rather silly to hunt ;)
I grow my own vegetables though, and then can them for the winter...only have to buy meat now and again and don't need to pay for electricity for storage in the garage.
Whatever works, plus you get to shoot your guns at things.

I just wish people would try to stop making things TRY to taste like meat. Veggies are delicious and when I want some bacon, I don't look to some sad soy attempt at bacon, I simply eat some bacon, but it's a very rare few mountain men that actually need to eat meat every day. It's all a matter of moderation.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 27, 2019 at 11:21 am

Posted by I'm a Reducetarian, a resident of Barron Park

>> Your recommendation to reduce meat rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach [...] "reducetarian"

I hadn't heard the term before, but, it turns out I've been at it for some time now. Beef really is harmful to the planet, and there aren't enough fish in the sea to support everyone on earth. Chicken works for health, planet and budget.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 27, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Great comments!

@I Shoot -- Sometimes I wonder if we all had to hunt and shoot and butcher our meat (impractical, sure, but interesting to think about), maybe we would waste less and eat less. I would definitely be a vegetarian...

@Lens -- To your point, I've found that if you eat (real) meat less, you have less of a taste for it. So the fake stuff doesn't appeal as much. Though bacon might be the one exception to that!

@Anon -- You and a lot of other people! Have you seen that study that claims that chicken bones will be our archaeological legacy?

Posted by The Future Is Lab Meat, a resident of Stanford,
on Feb 28, 2019 at 8:33 pm

The future is laboratory grown meat using meat cells as cultivators. The Dutch have already succeeded in this undertaking...the next step is making the procedure cost-effective.

To date, it will only be stuff like meatballs & ground beef...no steaks or roasts.

Real meat but no grazing & slaughterhouses or meat cutters required...just a lab coat and large petri dishes.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Mar 3, 2019 at 6:43 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@The Future -- Thanks for the comment! I agree that if we can find a low-cost and low-emissions way to make lab-grown meat, it is a good alternative for people. Especially if we can make it healthier at the same time. But do we ultimately want a lab-dependent diet? My 2c: I would prefer that we at least encourage the next generation to take the simpler/easier route of consuming a more plant-based diet.

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