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“As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” – Worldwatch Institute
“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.” – Paul Hawken
The opportunity of our lifetime now lies before us. Nature beckons us to stop the damage being done to our precious planet, to make the effort to act on her behalf. With all of us making the effort, we can create the world of the 21st century we’d like to see. We can overcome the outmoded 19th century systems that rely on cheap fossil fuels, non-renewable resources, and the unsustainable domination of nature to maximize profits, while severely damaging the air, water, land and beauty of our world. Every time we consume, we have a choice to use our money for or against the future viability of our planet. If we continue to support businesses that are damaging our planet, we add to the problem, but every time we make the more enlightened choice and support those that are working in harmony with nature, we become a force for good.
While certain actions to lower our ecological footprint have been widely communicated—changing light bulbs, turning down our thermostats, driving a hybrid car—it still comes as a surprise to many environmentalists that the greatest determinant of our individual contribution to global warming is our diet. According to the UN Report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, animal agriculture contributes 40 percent more greenhouse gases than the entire worldwide transportation sector. The production of animal foods accounts for 9 percent of annual human-induced CO2 emissions, 37 percent of methane emissions, (which has more than 20 times the global warming potential than CO2), and 65 percent of nitrous oxide, (which has nearly 300 times CO2’s global warming potential).
If we wish to be a force for beneficial, positive change for our planet, then the place to start is by eating lower on the food chain: minimizing or eliminating animal flesh, milk and eggs from our diet.
At its recent annual fundraiser Silent Auction, the Kanza Group of the Sierra Club focused on the theme of “Eating Our Way to a Healthy Planet.” People came with an open mind to learn how they could reduce their harm to the environment by changing their approach to eating. To the delight of many participants, there was a sumptuous table with a full array of earth- and animal-friendly, plant-based foods for them to sample. These vegan foods included spinach triangles, potato and bean tamales, vegetable curry rollups, baked tofu, red pepper and walnut spread, hummus, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, and almond cookies.
Some of the ideas discussed at the Silent Auction were the environmental impact of eating locally-sourced, organic foods, as well as the question of “humanely” raised animals. There are positive aspects to all of these approaches compared to consuming animal foods produced by commercial confined feeding operations (CAFOs) that cruelly confine animals in spaces so small they can hardly move, mutilate their bodies without anesthesia, force them to grow in such distorted ways that they spend their short lives in abject pain, feed them unnatural diets, and expose them to massive doses of antibiotics and pesticides from fossil fuels. These companies are directly responsible for some of the most egregious damage to our air, water and land. For more details on these operations, please see www.farmsanctuary.org or www.hsus.org.
However, when one looks closely at the scientific data, the adverse environmental impact of eating animal foods, even those produced locally, organically and/or “humanely” is far more substantial than the impact of eating a plant-based diet.
Meat And Dairy Have Greater Impact Than Food Miles
“A compromise in recent years has been the idea of animals raised locally and organically. Becoming a “locavore” who eats regional fruits and vegetables in season as much as possible makes abundant sense, of course. But with global warming, here’s the inconvenient truth about meat and dairy products: If you eat them, regardless of their origin and how they were produced, you significantly contribute to climate change. Period. If your beef is from New Zealand or your own backyard, if your lamb is organic free-range or factory farmed, it still has a negative impact on global warming.” – Mike Tidwell, “The Low Carbon Diet,” Audubon Magazine
“An analysis of the environmental toll of food production concludes that transportation is a mere drop in the carbon bucket. Foods such as beef and dairy make a far deeper impression on a consumer’s carbon footprint.” – New Scientist Magazine
In a comprehensive study of the greenhouse gas emissions of our meals, Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University found that eating less meat and dairy lowers the average U.S. household’s climate footprint more effectively than buying local food. Eating red meat and dairy products is responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions from food for the average U.S. household. Weber’s team found that out of the 8.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases generated annually as a result of food consumption by the average U.S. household, 11 percent was due to transportation, compared to 83 percent that was due to agricultural practices. The study concluded that switching to a totally local diet would produce the carbon savings of driving about 1,000 miles less per year, while switching to a vegan diet (no meat, dairy or eggs) cuts the equivalent of driving 8,120 miles per year.
Grass-Fed Cows And Organic Chickens Are Worse For Global Warming
What was surprising is that grazing, grass-fed cattle – those happy cows we all like to celebrate – will, according to Gidon Eshel, emit four to five times more methane than corn-fed cattle. But wait, that doesn’t mean that you should reach for a CAFO burger. “There are many reasons why grass-fed is superior,” says Eshel. “I don’t want anyone to think that greenhouse gas is the be-all and end-all. We have so many environmental problems.” Livestock production, especially the intensive production that is the hallmark of factory farms, contributes to all of those other problems, including energy use, deforestation, fertilizer production and runoff, and much more. Read all about it the sweeping, disturbing UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” – Lou Bendrick, Grist
“A report from Science News argues that beef produces 19 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram served; that grass-fed beef is worse – yes worse – for global warming than feed-lot beef; and that for every percentage reduction we make in meat consumption we’ll see a corresponding reduction in its contribution to global warming.” – Mark Bittman, New York Times
In a study comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of plant- and animal-based diets, University of Chicago professors Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin found that “if you eat the mean American diet, then you are responsible for the emissions of an extra ton and a half of CO2 equivalents [in the form of actual carbon dioxide as well as methane and nitrous oxide] per person per year, as compared to a vegan who eats the same number of calories but derived only from plants.” By contrast, switching from a standard sedan to a hybrid car saves about one ton of CO2 emissions.
The Science News report, “Climate-Friendly Dining,” discusses the research of Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University which found that, contrary to the common belief that fattening cattle on pasture grass is better for the environment than corn-fed cattle, the opposite is true from a climate perspective. As Pelletier explains, “We do see significant differences in the GHG intensities [of grass vs. grain finishing]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems.” This is because grass-fed cattle require more resources and thus cause more greenhouse gas emissions.
Another interesting study by Adrian Williams of Cranfield University looked at the environmental impact of organic, free-range chickens, and found that these birds have “a 20 percent greater global warming impact than conventionally-raised broiler birds.” The main reason is that the organically raised animals take longer to fatten to slaughter weight and they eat more feed. Williams also found that organic eggs have “a 14 percent higher impact on the climate than eggs from caged chickens.”
MAKING THE SWITCH
“The challenge of living without cheap fossil fuel is the challenge of doing more for ourselves – empowering ourselves – and discovering that doing more for yourself is eminently doable, eminently pleasurable and makes you feel empowered. This is what’s driving the whole food movement. It is one area of our lives where we can take back power from the cheap energy culture. We don’t see how we can live without our cars, without heat and air conditioning, but we can change the way we eat and begin really to tackle these problems one delicious bite at a time.” – Michael Pollan
“One of the most meaningful things we can do to arrest climate change is to change the way we eat. A vegetarian diet is the hands-down best choice for those of us who care about animals and the environment.” – Kathy Freston
As challenging as it may seem to change lifelong dietary habits, it’s also incredibly empowering to bring our actions into alignment with our deepest values. Every time we choose to eat plant-based foods, we are empowering ourselves to be part of the solution to global warming. Fortunately, the resources we need to make these changes are readily available and easily affordable – plus I can tell you from personal experience that the food is delicious!
To get started, there are numerous websites with vegetarian starter kits as well as recipes. For a starter kit, go to www.tryveg.com, www.goveg.com, www.pcrm.org, www.mercyforanimals.org, or www.veganoutreach.org. You’ll find helpful recipes at www.chooseveg.com, www.meatlessmondays.com, www.compassionatecooks.com, www.theppk.com, and www.vegcooking.com.
To help with the transition, substitute soy or almond milk for cow’s milk; Earth Balance organic buttery spread for butter; Egg Replacer instead of eggs in recipes. Incorporate faux meats into your meals, use Tofutti brand non-dairy cream cheese and sour cream, and for a real treat, try the amazingly tasty Purely Decadent brand non-dairy frozen dessert.
Here are a couple of great earth- and animal-friendly recipes from the recently published cookbook, The Vegan Table, by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. Colleen is also the author of The Joy of Vegan Baking and has a remarkably informative website with podcasts that I encourage you to check out: www.compassionatecooks.com.
ROASTED RED PEPPER AND WALNUT SPREAD
A delicious rich red pepper spread with walnuts and a hint of spiciness. Make this the day before serving to allow the flavors of the spices to mix. The olive oil may separate slightly, so stir well before serving.
Makes 1 cup or more
2 to 3 whole roasted peppers (from jar of roasted yourself)
2/3 cup bread crumbs (see below to make your own)
1 cup walnuts, toasted
4 large garlic cloves (roasted)
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more for added spice)
In a blender or food processor, combine the peppers and all the remaining ingredients. Taste, and add more spice or salt as necessary.
SERVING SUGGESTIONS AND VARIATIONS:
Garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Serve with pita triangles, fresh bread, crackers, chips, carrots, mushrooms, cucumber, etc.
To toast walnuts, just place them on a toaster oven tray and toast for 5 minutes; watch closely or they will burn.
To make your own bread crumbs: Place some bread (stale bread works great) in the oven until it’s crispy but not really browned – at 300 degrees). Let it cool, then add it to your food processor until it is reduced to crumbs. Add Italian herbs such as dried oregano, thyme, basil, marjoram, rosemary. Enjoy!
To roast your own pepper: Heat the oven to 525 degrees (or use your broiler). Place peppers on an oiled cookie sheet. Roast on the highest rack for about 30 minutes or until they turn completely black. It’s not necessary to turn them. Remove them from the oven, and put them in a paper bag right away. Let them cool before handling them. The blackened skin will then just peel off after only about 10 minutes in the bag. Roasting peppers over an open flame is also a great way to do it (and you don’t need any oil). Use your gas range or grill. Use tongs and just turn over an open flame for about 10 minutes until charred. Proceed as above.
PAN-GRILLED PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS WITH HERB-INFUSED MARINADE
These can be served as a main dish with a bunch of steamed spinach, chard, or collard greens, or with creamy mashed potatoes. Or add to a bun with all the fixin’s!
8 to 12 large-size Portobello mushrooms
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup tamari soy sauce
1 cup water
2 or 3 sprigs fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 or 3 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 o3 3 sprigs fresh marjoram or oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
Small amount of olive oil, for sautéing
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Remove stems from underside of mushrooms and lightly wipe tops with a damp paper towel.
In a large-size bowl, combine vinegar, tamari, water, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram. Stir to combine. Add mushrooms and make sure each one is covered by the marinade. You may need to move them around to give the marinade a chance to coat the top mushrooms. Marinate mushrooms for as little as 30 minutes or for as long as overnight in the refrigerator.
When ready to cook, add some oil to a large-size sauté pan, and turn heat to medium. Remove mushrooms from marinade, but do not discard marinade. Put as many mushrooms as can fit in the pan, tops down. They will shrink as they cook. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Turn and cook for 3 to 5 minutes longer.
Remove fresh herb sprigs from marinade, and pour marinade into pan, reserving some for additional batches of mushrooms. Cover and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Flip mushrooms, and cover and cook for 5 to 7 minutes longer. When fork-tender, remove from pan, and repeat above steps with remaining mushrooms.
To serve the mushrooms hot, simply use multiple sauté pans on the stove at once. Serve 2 mushrooms per person.
YIELD: 4 to 6 servings
After marinating the mushrooms, cook them on the grill, about 5 minutes on each side.
Recipes reprinted from The Vegan Table by Colleen Partrick-Goudreau by permission of the author.
Ideas and Recipes for a Changing Diet
By Beth Lily Redwood