The Climate Menu

Why some people are now thinking about the earth when they order a meal

Alissia Blackwood photo illustration

About a third of the earth's greenhouse gas pollution can be linked to food, including its production, processing, packaging, transport, storage and preparation. As climate change becomes a mainstream concern, and people keep obsessing about food, it was inevitable that a new flavor of eater would emerge, the name of which made the New York Times list of top new food words.

CLIMATARIAN (n.) A diet whose primary goal is to 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 devote to 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. To assume otherwise — that your actions don't matter — opens the door to excusing negative behavior.

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, like a meditation practice where you exercise your interconnectedness to the universe.

Unfortunately, if we were to take the climatarian diet to its logical conclusion, it could take the form of a greenish paste created by scientists to contain the exact balance of nutrients one needs, procured in the most climate-friendly way. If you are concerned about the climate and want to do your part, but can't get excited about a diet of eco-mush, the next best alternative is to learn about the nuanced ways food can impact the climate, and apply that understanding to your meal plans and eating habits.

According to the food carbon emissions calculator created by CleanMetrics, a pound of "ration-fed beef," that is, factory-farmed beef, is responsible for 8 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.

Grass-fed beef emits a bit less, according to the calculator, releasing 7.58 kilos of carbon for every pound eaten (with 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 kilograms of carbon, while a pound of factory-farmed chicken releases 1.5 kilograms of carbon.

Aspiring climatarians should start with a base daily carbon allowance they can use. Estimates vary for what the average daily allowance should be for all of the Earth's inhabitants in order to control global warming, but is somewhere near 10 to 15 kilograms per day for all activities, including eating. If we stay at home with the heat off and lights out, we can eat a pound of that steak every day; just not much else.

Or we could eat 50 pounds of potatoes with roughly the same impact, according to the calculator.

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. Cheeses that are minimally aged, like mozzarella, or minimally processed, like feta, score better.

Obviously, going vegetarian or vegan will make it easier to stay within a fair carbon budget, and if that feels right for your body, go for it. But please don't make or consume pretend vegan steak. Celebrate your grains and beans and vegetables as they are, instead of fashioning them into wannabe animal proteins.

If real animal protein is what you want, you'll have to either get creative or adjust your lifestyle to one that allows you to enjoy carbon-friendly meat. On the "get creative" side of the spectrum, we have animal proteins, like European frozen mackerel, that have only slightly higher emissions than lentils.

As for lifestyle changes, you could move to the coast, live off the sea and eat quite a lot of fish, which are, after all, wild animals that you only need to catch, not raise. Or move to a region where deer outnumber people and hunting opportunities abound.

While some have the fortune to obsess over their artisanal, carbon-friendly lifestyles, the fact remains that most food eaten will have been purchased at a restaurant or market.

Climatarians have to do some old-fashioned math and research to calculate their footprint. Let's face it; climatarianism is a bit of a nerdy pursuit, and those pursuing it should be OK with that. ♦

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