The Climate Menu

Eating for a cooler planet

About one-third of the earth’s greenhouse-gas pollution can be linked to food, its production, processing, packaging, transport, storage and preparation.

As climate change becomes a mainstream concern, and people keep obsessing about food, it seems inevitable that a new flavor of diner would emerge, the name of which made the New York Times list of top new food words, “climatarianism.”

A climatarian is one whose diet choices are designed to help reverse climate change. This includes eating locally produced food (to reduce energy spent in transportation), choosing pork and poultry instead of beef and lamb (to limit gas emissions) and using every part of ingredients (apple cores, cheese rinds, etc.) to limit food waste.

Climatarians look at their food choices with a sense of duty similar to what many put toward recycling or riding their bike to work. While a low-carbon meal isn’t any more of a silver bullet against global warming than a recycled can, the power of many people beating a similar drum can have a big impact. Eating in a carbon-friendly way, like recycling, gets one into the habit of respecting the impact of all of one’s actions, great and small.

To be a smart climate player at the dining table, you need to know how and where something was produced, details which can vary between meals that look similar on the surface, like a good old plate of steak and potatoes. According to the food carbon emissions calculator CleanMetrics, a pound of “ration-fed beef”—that is, factory-farmed beef—is responsible for eight kilograms of carbon in the atmosphere, largely in the form of methane. This is an astounding amount when multiplied by the billions of pounds of beef consumed around the world. And in the case of beef, it doesn’t much matter where it was produced. The transport-related emissions for that pound of beef, if it were shipped 1,000 miles, would only be 0.07 kilograms of carbon.

Grass-fed beef emits a bit less, according to the calculator, releasing 7.58 kilos of carbon for every pound eaten (with the same transport emissions). This is less atmospheric carbon than factory-farmed beef creates but is still an astronomical, unsustainable amount. A pound of lentils, by comparison, releases 0.24 kg, while a pound of chicken releases 1.5 kg of carbon dioxide.

Properly grazed ungulates like cattle can actually help the earth sequester carbon dioxide, as their manure encourages plant growth which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Still, it’s safe to assume the worst when buying beef of unknown provenance.

Unfortunately for cheese and butter lovers, the condensed secretions of bovine mammary glands that they so cherish are responsible for a lot of carbon pollution.

Obviously, going vegetarian or vegan will make it easier to stay on a carbon budget, and if that feels right for your body, go for it.

While some have the fortune to obsess over their artisan, carbon-friendly lifestyles, the fact remains that most food is purchased at a supermarket or restaurant. So until climatarians can scan labels with their smartphones and keep track of personal carbon use, they will have to do it the old-fashioned way: with their brains, by digging for clues and stringing them together. But let’s face it, since climatarianism is a bit of a nerdy pursuit, they should be OK with that.