Death to cheeseburgers


by Ari LeVaux

If you’re concerned about the effect your food choices have on the environment, you should reconsider cheeseburgers. A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology shows that beef and milk products are the world’s most polluting foods, thanks to the greenhouse gases released by the production of cows.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, this indictment of the all-American cheeseburger may be taken by climate change skeptics as proof that global warming is a left-wing conspiracy. But burger lovers who fear global warming should expect angst at the grill this summer.

Meanwhile, in awkward news for locavores, the study also found that for the average consumer, eating locally offers negligible benefits in terms of greenhouse gas prevention.

Crunching numbers from the U.S. departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Transportation, a Carnegie Mellon University research team calculated that shipping food between production and consumption creates only 4 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Food production accounts for 83 percent, and transport activities during food production dwarfs post-production shipping to market by a margin of three to one.

But before anyone gives up riding their bike to the farmers market, the study’s true take-home message is that if you’re serious about combating climate change with your eating habits, you need to make your decisions where they count. Locally purchased veggies, for example, have a larger impact on greenhouse emissions than the purchase of any other type of local food, according to the study.

Given how most cattle are raised today, on the other hand, the delivery from meat packer to consumer is barely a footnote in the cow’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. A lot of carbon gets burned in the raising and shipping of cattle feed and in moving cows around during production. And even the grass-fed cow next door produces methane – one of the worst greenhouse gases – as a metabolic byproduct.

To better understand the impact of eating locally, meanwhile, the researchers created a hypothetical scenario called “total localization,” in which an average household eats its average diet completely locally – with zero greenhouse gas emissions associated with food delivery. They found that the drop in greenhouse gas emissions created by this totally localized average household diet equals the emissions generated by one-seventh of the average household beef consumption. Thus, total localization would save roughly the equivalent of a cheeseburger per week’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Like some whacky subatomic particle, total localization exists only in the realm of statistics – and certain as-yet uncontacted Amazon tribes, and perhaps some dropped-out hippy communes. But in America, total localization would require the average household to be located next door to a slaughterhouse, a soft-drink factory, a cereal factory, a bakery, an ocean, a winery, an apple orchard, a coffee plantation, etc. – all at the same time.

While the statistical averages suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from food transport are small relative to the emissions caused by production, those numbers don’t reveal that average production and consumption practices are much more polluting than they could be. Picture millions of Americans idling their cars at the drive-thru, waiting for their cheeseburgers. This image, perhaps more than any other scenario, epitomizes the contribution of American food to global warming.

Meanwhile, the people who are developing, using and supporting less destructive farming practices aren’t statistically significant enough to be included in this study, acknowledged lead researcher Chris Weber. “The subset who gardens or buys food at farmers markets is too small,” he told me by phone.

If locavores and their ilk are too few to be statistically significant, it suggests that all your conscious eating won’t do a lick of global good as long as everybody else is popping cheeseburgers like Prozac. Nonetheless, I prefer the Kool-Aid of local, sustainable farming. Nobody has come close to proving it can’t make a difference, and I think that aiming for a carbon-neutral diet has plenty of perks.

The drive-thru isn’t exactly the health food store, and reducing your intake of “average” cheeseburgers can’t hurt your survival odds. Meanwhile, the above-average food that’s being produced with care by your local farmer offers, in my experience, above-average flavor. And getting your food from these sources offers a super-sized serving of fun.

At the farmers market last week, for example, a rancher told me about a blind steer he couldn’t herd into his corral for slaughter. So the inspector and the butcher had to go into the pasture to inspect and kill it (only under special circumstances, like with blind animals, is a field inspection permitted).

“It’s the best way,” Ernie said. “I wish we could do it that way every time. It’s peaceful, there’s no adrenaline, the meat’s a lot better.”

I bought a rib-eye steak off the blind steer. Then the grower got going about how yellow his butter is these days, thanks to the dandelion-rich diet of his dairy cows. I’m a sucker for stories like this. Then I noticed his feta, which reminded me that I have a patch of spinach that needs to be harvested.

The blind cow, thinly sliced and fried with yellow onions, Philly-style – and accompanied by a glass of California red wine poured from an eco-friendly cardboard box – was spectacular. The yellow butter was so good I ate it plain, like cheese. And my spinach/feta salad, with red onions, was perfect.

The world has too many cows, no doubt about it. But maybe, for special occasions, it’s OK to have a few of our tasty bovine friends around – especially if you’re a fan of organic agriculture, which uses manure as fertilizer. As my farmer friend Steve once pointed out: “Somebody has to make that shit.”

If we reduce the quantity but increase the quality of the beef and milk products we eat, then we’ll eat better and perhaps live longer, while having more fun. And we’ll probably leave a better planet behind us. •



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