Chewing It Over

While we were kicking around New York a couple weeks ago, my young man and I met up with a couple of his friends at Red Bamboo, a vegetarian retaurant in Greenwich Village.  This was not our idea.  Our dining-out ideas more typically involve meat buffets, or at least cheeseburgers the size of my face.  Let’s just say that we’ve never chosen a restaurant for their salad bar, so the idea of an entirely vegetarian meal was daunting.

At home though, I typically eat vegetarian.  It’s just too hard for a budding environmentalist to choose meat at the grocery without a serious guilt trip.  Back in January, Mark Bittman wrote a piece for the NYT summarizing the different environmental and societal impacts of meat production: we get to worry about methane from the animals, carbon from transportation, huge amounts of grain for feed, inhumane treatment (not that I want them to get back rubs or anything, but I’d settle for content and healthy), animal waste in the water supply- woo!  Enough to make me skip the red meat entirely. I just fret in front of the selection of regular/hormone free/totally organic free range birds.  Normally I get exasperated by my own indecision after a few minutes and just head over to the frozen cheese ravioli.  Voila, I’m a vegetarian for a few days.

Red Bamboo is a vegetarian restaurant specializing in fake meat.  I find this to be strange.  Our friend explained that lots of practicing herbivores began life in meat-eating families. They make a conscious decision to switch over to the planty side, but still feel the need to structure a meal around a slab of protein, just like Mom.  Also, he likes their soy buffalo wings (still not real buffalo!).  Makes sense to me, and the wings weren’t bad.  Tasted like chicken, mostly, and had a not-unpleasing ground texture.  (The “chicken” parmagiane was pretty good, also, but avoid the “beef” stew.)

Meat’s on my mind, because a new study by a pair at Carnegie Mellon has calculated the various environmental costs of shipping food internationally, categorized by the type of food consumed.  Turns out it makes more environmental sense to subsist on apples imported from New Zealand than eat beef from next door.  From the study abstract, published by the American Chemical Society:

Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

Hunh.  Sounds like I’m doing pretty well at the grocery.  And maybe I’ll spring for that free range chicken next week. 

There are more reasons to buy local, or grow your own stuff, than just “maybe fewer emissions”, though.  Supporting small farmers, broadening the food supply, saving money…

Final Thought: I will eat less meat, especially red meat.  But only because of the environmental impacts.  How long will it take for sustainable beef to be readily available?  Does anybody know of any?  I would like cheeseburgers again.

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