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Diet and climate change: Bring on the Impossible Burger!

This is the time for new resolutions and new habits. So, how about a more climate-friendly diet? My friends know I study climate. So they ask me, “What is the one thing I can do to cut my carbon footprint?” I try not to scream in response that there is not just one thing! Among the most important to consider,” I tell them, “is changing your diet.”

As a meat-eater, this is a topic I have avoided for years. Many times, I have stood guiltily in front of the meat counter thinking about how much I hate tofu and how my body just doesn’t seem to like legumes, and hearing myself ask, “don’t those steaks look good?” But I have come to understand that I do not need to give up meat to have a more climate-friendly diet. However, I do need to become a more intelligent eater.

First, I was surprised to find that most Americans eat far too much protein. According to JohnHopkinsmedicine.org, the average women needs less than 50 grams of protein a day, the average man less than 60. But the average American eats over 100 grams of protein a day. That is why the Mediterranean diet, which meets global dietary guidelines, is so healthy. It has plenty of protein, but in diverse forms and smaller quantities.

Consider: A hamburger is about 4 grams an ounce and a three-ounce patty is 12 grams.

An egg is six grams.

A steak is 7 grams per ounce, so an 8 oz. steak is 56 grams.

Fish, peanuts, and lamb are also 7 grams an ounce.

Pork and chicken are 8 grams an ounce.

Tofu is 2.3 grams an ounce.

Cooked beans are 7-10 grams for a half a cup.

So keeping your diet to 50-60 grams of protein a day is not difficult. But it is a bit more complicated when you look at the climate impact of different types of protein.

Most of us know that eating lots of beef and lamb is a matter for the climate police, not just because of the carbon emissions resulting from their production, including forest loss, fertilizers, grazing, manure, water use and transportation, but because cows and lambs are ruminants. The digestion system of these animals releases enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. So, for meat eaters, it is much gentler on the planet to eat pork or chicken.

A very helpful chart put together by The Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org/meateatersguide) considers a full range of climate costs of various types of protein. Beef ranks 63, cheese 31, pork 28, chicken 16, eggs 11, tuna 14, nuts 5, beans 4.5 and milk 4.

There are other variables. Is it locally grown? How far has it travelled to get here? Lamb flown from Australia may have a higher emissions footprint than any other meat protein and farmed fish flown in fresh may have a higher footprint than pork.

A 2013 study by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that annual emissions from animal agricultural were about 14.5% of all human-related emissions, and that beef contributed 41% of that total. Beef is the most resource-intensive meat. According to the World Economic Forum, beef requires 20 times the land and generates 20 times the emissions as plant-based foods. According to an Oxford Martin School study (March 2016), global dietary guidelines would cut food-related emissions by 29%, vegetarian diets by 63% and vegan diets by 70%.

That does not mean we all need to become vegetarians. But we do need to shift away from beef and lamb, and eat more intelligently. Make beef and lamb special occasion meals.

Recently, my friend Lorraine and I went out for “Impossible Burgers.” We did a blind taste test with a regular beef hamburger. And, as Lorraine said, “I am really surprised, I can hardly taste the difference. These Impossible Burgers are really good!”

So, bring them on, I say.

Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and is a student of climate change. She can be reached at judith.polich@gmail.com.

 

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