Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Our Picky Eater and Climate Change

This post was also posted on the Climate Mama web site.

by Lauri

This didn't start out to be a post about climate change.  It began as a post about picky eating.

For those of you who are familiar with Jason and his eating habits, he has (thankfully) added a new food to his repetoire - peanut butter and honey sandwiches.  A week ago, he wouldn't touch peanut butter; now he proclaims it as one of his new favorite things.

Jason loving a peanut butter & double honey sandwich
This may seem trivial, but with Jason, it's all about trying to find sources of protein.  Vegetarian by choice, he's been eating lots of plain pasta with butter, flour tortillas, and white rice since we left the States.  He eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, but protein is a challenge - so far, it's been handfuls of nuts, yogurt and milk.  At home, he eats a jar of either almond or soy nut butter per week - which are definitely not available on the road.

Our daughter will happily chow down what we call "kid food" in the States - chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, and the occasional carbon-intensive hamburger.  Jason?  None of the above.

At any rate:  we came back through San Jose for a few days before leaving for Peru, and we went to an excellent exhibit on climate change at the National Museum.
It led to a side discussion with the kids about how eating less meat, especially beef, is better for the environment and our changing climate.  Jason doesn't like meat.  But also, the way he sees it:  he likes animals.  If he eats meat, there are fewer animals in the world.  A sweet six-year-old sentiment -- but also a logical argument based in heartfelt emotion, and it's hard to argue with, even for a meat eater like myself.

Carbon Cost of Protein
At an average of 270 pounds per person, per year, Americans eat more meat per capita than citizens of any other country (except Luxembourg).  The USDA recommends an annual maximum of 125 pounds from the entire protein group, including meat and other sources, such as eggs, nuts and soy.  World average per capita meat consumption is 102.5 pounds per year, much closer to the USDA recommended max.

Beef has been the top choice for Americans for more than half a century, until recently, when chicken topped the charts.  Still, about 30 percent of the meat consumed in the U.S. is beef.

Beef is one of the most carbon-intensive foods we can eat.  According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), it generates 27 kilos of CO2 equivalents per kilo of meat consumed (more than twice the emissions of pork, four times more than chicken, and 13 times more than vegetable proteins, like beans).  Lamb is even more carbon-intensive - about 50 percent more so than beef.

A big part of meat's contribution to greenhouse gases is the methane produced by the animals' digestion and manure.  Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2, according to EWG.  There are also other environmental impacts from routine use of antibiotics; artificial hormones to promote growth; pesticides and fertilizers used to grow grain for animal feed; and of course, the significant amount of water needed (634 gallons to make one burger).

I knew most of this, but a surprise for me was the CO2 equivalent for cheese -- it's third on the EWG list, behind only lamb and beef.  It has a higher carbon footprint than pork or turkey, and twice that of chicken.  Other dairy products, such as yogurt or milk, are much less carbon-intensive.  Why?  Because it takes so much milk to make a pound of cheese - about 10 pounds of milk per pound of cheese.

Over the course of a year, if everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road, according to EWG.

Meat and cheese from grass-fed animals is certainly a better choice than grain-fed.  However, in Costa Rica, much of the land used for cattle grazing was at one point rainforest.  So raising cattle also contributes to deforestation.

And then there's the personal impact.  Numerous studies have found that people with higher intakes of red meat have higher incidences of not just heart diseases, but stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Do I eat meat?  I do.  I knew meat had a negative environmental impact, so I've been eating less than I used to -- and much more chicken than beef.  But after talking with my little vegetarian about this, and researching this post, I'm going to seek out other sources of protein more often -- such as beans in Costa Rica and Peru, where they're a dietary staple.

I knew there was a reason I liked peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

Links for more info:
Take the EWG meat-eaters pledge
EWG Meat Eater's Guide
Grist article on cheese


  1. Hi Lauri!

    Thanks for your informative post. I never thought about cheese being carbon intensive... that is a problem for me because I try, sometimes more successful than other times, to be vegetarian. When I do eat meat (probably twice a week currently), I have to divorce myself from how the meat likely got on my plate - a definite Jedi mind-trick.

    To make up for the lack of meat protein in my diet I eat a lot of cheese. I didn't connect the dots about how much milk it takes to make cheese and my carbon footprint. I occasionally make paneer at home, and it is an incredibly wasteful process. A gallon of milk makes about a cream cheese-sized block of cheese. Henceforth, when I make boca burgers, I will nix the cheese.

    Have you considered the humble corn tortilla made from corn soaked in lime, and beans? The combination makes a perfect protein, no animal suffers to fill my belly, and my carbon footprint is reduced when we do this meal on Meatless Mondays.

  2. An update: After seeing and discussing this post, Jason challenged us to go meatless for a week here in Arequipa, Peru. It's certainly doable, although in light of the fact that meat represents a significant part of the diet here, we decided to up the ante and try it someplace else in our travels. So we'll be going meatless for a month when we go to India, where most people eat a vegetarian diet. We thought it would be a good -- and delicious -- place to try it for an extended period of time.

    Jamie initially put up some resistance, but she's on board as well... although she's already wondering where she'll be able to have her next hamburger after leaving India.

    @Kathy - thanks for your comment; I was surprised as well by the carbon footprint of cheese. We've been doing lots of beans, rice and tortillas here, which has been good (and tasty). And fortunately, we've been able to find peanut butter everywhere so far. :)


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