If you’re concerned about the effect your food choices have on global warming, stay away from 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 during cow production.
Just in time for the Fourth of July, this indictment of the all-American cheeseburger may offer proof, to some, that global warming is a left-wing conspiracy. But for many burger lovers who accept the reality of climate change, expect pain at the grill this summer.
And in what has to be awkward news for locavores, the study also found that for the average consumer, eating locally offers negligible benefits in terms of greenhouse gas prevention.
Transport of food from production to consumption creates only 4 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, food production alone accounts for 83 percent.
Of all foods, the production of cow-related products like beef and dairy are responsible for the most greenhouse gases—largely because methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases, is a byproduct of bovine metabolism.
But before anyone quits riding their bike to the farmers’ market, the take-home message is that if you’re serious about combating climate change with your eating habits, you simply need to make your decisions where they count. You’ll be relieved to know that buying veggies locally, according to the study, has a larger effect on lessening greenhouse emissions than any other locally purchased foods.
This study reveals admittedly broad trends, relying on statistical averages that in many cases have no counterpart in reality. For example, to isolate the effects of eating locally, the researchers studied a condition called “total localization,” in which a hypothetical average household eats its average diet completely locally, with zero greenhouse gas emissions associated with food delivery.
Researchers measured the amount of greenhouse gas spared the atmosphere by this hypothetical, totally localized average family, and then calculated how much beef production it would take to create an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas. They found that the drop in greenhouse gas emissions created by the totally localized average household equals the emissions generated by one-seventh the average household beef consumption. Thus, total localization would only save roughly the equivalent of a cheeseburger per week’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions.
That said, total localization is not a possibility for the average household. In order for the average consumer to eat her daily average serving of beef locally, she’d have to live next door to a slaughterhouse. She’d also have to live next door to a soft-drink factory, a cereal factory, a bakery, an ocean, a winery, an apple orchard, a banana plantation, etc.
While total localization only exists in the realm of statistics, some things that do exist in the real world are not included. Home-gardeners, farmers’-market shoppers, hunters, wild herb gatherers and others who find ways to eat locally without paying for it are not accounted for in this study.
Regardless of the study’s results, I still support local beef. At the farmers’ market last week, I stopped by the Lifeline Farms meat stand to pick up some cow brains Ernie had left for me—Shorty’s going to brain-tan the hide of an elk I shot, and make a loincloth. Ernie told me about a blind cow they couldn’t herd into the coral, so the beef inspector and the butcher had to go out into the field to inspect and slaughter it.
“I wish we could do it in the field that way all the time,” said Ernie of the fact that only under special circumstances, like with blind cows, is this process allowed. “It’s peaceful, there’s no adrenaline, the meat’s better.”
I bought a rib-eye steak of Ernie’s blind cow. Then Ernie told me about how yellow his butter is this time of year because the cows eat so many dandelion flowers. After buying a pound of yellow butter, I remembered a patch of spinach in my garden that’s about to bolt and needs to be harvested, and bought a block of fresh feta at Ernie’s stand.
Ernie’s blind cow, thinly sliced and fried with onions, Philly-style, was spectacular, alongside a glass of California red wine from an eco-friendly cardboard box. That yellow butter was so good I ate it plain, as if it were cheese. The feta made its way to a bed of fresh spinach with chopped onions, and made me very happy as well.
The world has too many cows, no doubt about it. But maybe, for special occasions, it’s okay to have a few of our tasty bovine friends around. After all, as my local organic farmer-friend Steve points out: “Somebody has to make the shit.” If we reduce the quantity of beef and milk products we eat, but increase the quality, then we’ll eat better, perhaps live longer, and likely leave a better planet behind us.
Ask Ari: Does the beet go on?
In the feedback department, my recent mention of BLT sandwich engineering stoked readers’ passions. A message on my voicemail from a wise farmer advised putting two pieces of bread together in the toaster, so each piece has a crispy side (the outer sides of the two-piece unit) and a soft side. When making the sandwich, the crispy sides face inward, where they can touch mayo, etc., without getting soggy. The soft sides face outward, so the sandwich never takes a bite out of your mouth. Brilliant.
Meanwhile, another reader agreed, “The tomatoes must be in full contact with the mayo…” adding in the e-mail, “Cheese should never touch any sandwich spread... It should always be betwixt the meat and the veggies.” And, “The onions must follow the tomatoes on the mayo side. (Could this all be some strong influence from the McDLT??)”
Onto the question.
I’ve got some beets from last year that have stored nicely in my root cellar. Is it too late to turn them into pickled beets?
A: Dear PP,
Most sources peg beet storage life at 2 to 6 months, but the most compelling information you have is the beet in your hand. If it’s hard as a rock—and not big as a boulder and with a woody stem—pickle that beet!
But if your beets are softer now than they once were, I’d have to advise you to let those beets go, rather than invest the time and expense into pickling beets whose time has passed. After all, more fresh beets are just around the corner.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.