At the New York Times Room for Debate Blog, a bunch of commentators were asked to weigh in with easy-to-make changes Americans might adopt to reduce their environmental impact. One of those commentators, Juliet Schor, recommends eating less meat:
Rosamond Naylor, a researcher at Stanford, estimates that U.S. meat production is especially grain intensive, requiring 10 times the grain required to produce an equivalent amount of calories than grain, Livestock production, which now covers 30 percent of the world’s non-ice surface area, is also highly damaging to soil and water resources.
Compared to producing vegetables or rice, beef uses 16 times as much energy and produces 25 times the CO2. A study on U.S. consumption from the University of Chicago estimates that if the average American were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, that would be the equivalent of switching from driving a Camry to a Prius.
Americans currently rank second in world in meat consumption, weighing in at 271 pounds a year, up from 196 pounds 40 years ago. And that doesn’t include dairy. We get an estimated 75 grams of protein a day from animals, and 110 grams total; the government recommends only 50 grams a day.
The idea of eating lower on the food chain to save the planet isn’t a new one. However, this isn’t a suggestion that helps the Free-Ride household reduce its environmental impact, since we are already meatless.
What’s more, figuring out how to tweak our dietary choices to further reduce our impact is made difficult by the lack of transparency about the real environmental costs of our options. The labels in the supermarket don’t list how much water, land, or petroleum-based fertilizer went into producing your pound of potatoes or peas. Nor do they reflect the amount of energy used to process your tofu, nor the natural resources to can you chickpeas, nor the fuel to ship your bananas.
All of which makes it very hard to know how to make better choices about the foods we eat.
For example, so far this year we’ve been eating significantly more legumes each week. Nutritionally, they’re a slam-dunk, high in fiber and protein. And, since legumes tend to enrich the soil they’re grown in, I’m hopeful that we’re expending less fertilizer than we would be otherwise. So far, so good. But now, in our quest to be environmentally responsible, should we be buying beans in cans or bags of dried beans?
The dried beans need to be soaked in water, then boiled in water (and it’s generally recommended that you don’t boil them in the water you soaked them in). So, here you’re consuming water (which we’re very short on in California) plus whatever source of power you use for cooking — just to get your legumes ready for your recipe.
Canned beans, on the other hand, don’t need to be soaked or boiled … at least not at home. I’m unclear on what state the beans are in when they enter the processing plant — maybe they’re freshly picked, but maybe they’re dried beans that need to be soaked and boiled at the factory before being canned. (The latter option strikes me as a silly one, but as a consumer, I can’t rule it out.) The beans are packed in steel cans — it takes both metal and energy to make those cans and to put the beans in them. And while steel cans are recyclable, recycling requires energy inputs, too.
Indeed, there’s packaging for the dried beans, too — plastic bags — which requires petroleum and energy to make. And unless the legumes are sun-dried, there’s likely an energy input required to dry the beans.
So, dry or canned? Which choice is more responsible? How on earth is a consumer supposed to evaluate this choice?
The cooking method introduces another decision point where I don’t have as much information as I’d like. Lately, I’ve been rocking the slow-cooker. It tends to use less water than cooking stuff in a pot on the electric range, but over a much longer cooking time. Am I saving water only to use more electricity? Is there a good way to evaluate this?
If any of y’all know a good source for this kind of information, can you point me toward it? I have a feeling that there are other people who would like to take account of the environmental costs associated with their food choices, if only they knew what those costs really were.