The Ultimate Global Warmer's 3-Course Dinner


If you’re the kind of person who would make a lifestyle change based on its impact on the climate, you’re probably already aware that your food choices impact the molecular balance of the atmosphere in ways pertinent to life as we know it. By some estimates, half of human greenhouse gas emissions are released by the production, transport, preparation and consumption of food. And thanks to population growth and economic development around the world, that portion is steadily growing.

This reality has spawned a foodie tribe known as the climatarians. According to the New York Times, its members adhere to a "diet whose primary goal is to reverse climate change."

You might think that climatarians would also be locavores, as do-gooders trying to save the world by eating carefully. But their agendas are not always aligned. It turns out that the distance food travels, while important, makes less of a difference to the carbon footprint than how that food was produced.

The reason animal products are among the most polluting of foods is that animal feed needs to be grown, which has its own carbon cost, and then it must be fed to the animals, making meat or dairy less efficient in terms of energy spent per calories harvested. Many studies indicate concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—aka factory farms—are more efficient than raising grassfed animals because the operations benefit from the economics of scale, so they are more efficient, and the animals are ready for slaughter sooner, so they end up producing less methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, over the course of their lives.

So while a locavore may balk at the idea of a fast-food burger, opting instead to thaw a pack of burgers from a local meat-share program, a climatarian would pull into the drive-thru, turn off his engine, and marvel at the efficiencies of modern life.

Meanwhile, vegan climatarians hasten to point out that animal products are among the worst climate offenders of all foods, and we can all live just fine on a plant-based diet. In fact, if you compare a vegan diet with the ideal climatarian diet, you might be tempted to think that the whole global warming thing is a vegan conspiracy theory—though even a vegetarian diet has about half the carbon footprint of a meat-eater's diet.

There are notable exceptions, of course. I can put the gun rack on my mountain bike, and pull a trailer up a logging road, and ride out with a deer, and have a year’s worth of carbon-free steak and burger. If you live near the beach and can dig clams, you can similarly not be part of the problem. And if you’re an enterprising suburb dweller, you could probably figure out a way to feed a backyard cow with grass clippings from your neighbors' (pesticide-free) lawns, and rig up a system to vacuum the cow's methane-rich burps and farts, and use that to heat your house.

I believe it's also worth noting the position championed by ecologist Allan Savory and others that a certain amount of cattle on certain types of land is healthy for the land. The plains and other landscapes evolved with ungulates as part of the natural cycles, and in many regions, including the U.S., the naturally occurring ungulates—bison, antelope, elk, caribou—have been pushed off of their native range.

Since we've largely removed these animals, goes the argument, replacing them with range animals like cattle can, if done right, bring the grassland ecosystem back into harmony. Some proponents of this idea go so far as to argue that ranging ungulates can remove carbon from the atmosphere, as grazing stimulates plant growth, which absorbs enough carbon dioxide to make up for their gaseous emissions. This line of thinking, while outgunned in the climatarian community, has not been discredited. But even if it turns out to be true in theory, if you don't do your due diligence, the average hunk of meat or cheese is going to be very bad for the climate. 

This is why the cheeseburger has come to epitomize the ultimate climate-killing food. But we could certainly do worse. And, I would argue, it would be instructive to contemplate what goes into the worst-case scenario: the worst meal ever from a climate perspective. Let's call it the Climate Denier’s Happy Meal.

You could think of this exercise as something like a self-defense technique built upon the moves that are illegal in competitive cage fighting. Such moves—you know, going for the eyes, groin, spine and fingers while biting, clawing and headbutting your adversary—are instructive, arguably, in order to learn how to dominate conflict that can't be avoided.

In this spirit, I will make a list of the dirtiest climate moves on the planet, followed by a menu plan that incorporates as many of these as possible. Hopefully, by facing the dark side head on, we can avoid the worst case scenario.

In order to help with this quest, I'll use an online tool called the Food Carbon Emissions Calculator, into which we can plug the food item we wish to review, the amount we wish to eat and the distance it will be shipped via truck in the U.S., once it reaches port. This handy calculator spits out the number of kilograms of carbon dioxide created by producing and delivering a pound of the food in question, right to your door.

Top of the list is red meat, with lamb being the worst, carrying a cost of nearly 12kg of atmospheric carbon per pound of meat. Those baby sheep manage to belch a lot of methane during their short lives, and don't produce much meat in return. And, they require the raising and maintenance of a parent herd to birth them. Cheese is also a major carbon offender.

The Climate Deniers' Happy Meal will be cooked for a long time, thereby using lots of carbon-intensive energy. Raw steak would be a more responsible choice, but we are going to cook it for hours. And we’ll serve it with out-of-season side dishes and greedy desserts.

The main course will be braised lamb shanks, aka osso bucco. Shank is the only part of a lamb's body that could survive—actually thrive—under extended cooking, thanks to its being the toughest part of the lamb, so tough it needs to be cooked for hours to render it chewable. In order to waste as much energy as possible, we will braise the shanks in a big oven, rather than a crockpot. The osso bucco must be from a lamb, not a full-grown sheep, because mutton is too efficient for our purposes.

I would be tempted to order our lamb from New Zealand, from which about half of the U.S. lamb is imported, but New Zealanders take climate change seriously, and are actively implementing measures to maximize the feed conversion efficiency of their flocks, and minimize the greenhouse gas emissions from lamb. A recent study outlined ways that the GHG emissions from lamb could be sliced by 30 percent, while those from beef—widely considered the world's number-two GHG emitter—could be reduced by 15 percent.

So let's actually order closer to home for maximum climate destruction: Idaho-grown lamb from the American Wild West, which may actually have a larger carbon footprint, despite its shorter commute.

Let's have this meal in winter, so we simply must import our vegetables, which if we were able to source locally, would be of negligible climate impact. Let's select some tender salad greens to put on the side of the plate as decoration, which many of us won't even eat, so they will instead decay in a landfill, releasing even more carbon dioxide.

While a head of California lettuce shipped across the country would only set the climate back about a fifth of a kilo of atmospheric carbon, if we get it out of season—say, from a greenhouse in Sweden—we are talking four and a half kilos of carbon dioxide. That’s nearly twice greater carbon impact than Norwegian lobster (which is no saint either at 25kg). And if seafood is what you want, mackerel will only give you 0.63kg worth of guilt.  

Sure, we could all blindly follow a vegan diet, and probably do a lot better by the climate than if we spent our mealtimes at the Brazilian BBQ. But if that blind allegiance to vegetables causes you to do more damage to the climate with that salad than you could have done with a lobster roll, well, the discerning food snob with an array of interests would probably want to know that. Because I, for one, would prefer to eat the lobster.

The climate denier, who obviously has no sense of taste or reason, would do well to wash down his or her meal with a cheap wine from California’s central valley—or better yet, the irrigated, fertilized vineyards of Chile. Cheap wine is not only more likely to have a larger carbon footprint, but more likely to waste water. So by drinking it you are not only helping to cause droughts, but exacerbating them too.

But really, if your aim is to ignore the climate as decadently as possible, you’re only getting about 0.4 kilos of carbon from a bottle of wine—roughly the same as a pound of chocolate liquor from Ghana. Still, it all adds up. Our osso bucco with Swedish lettuce and artisan Wisconsin cheese plate could generate about 21 kg of carbon dioxide, and that doesn’t include cheesecake for dessert—versus a meal of lentils, vegetables and rice…well, we could throw in a bottle of wine and still be under a single kilogram.

As the old saw goes, you are what you eat. So if you care about the climate, eat less climate-intensive foods. If you don't, now you've got a new recipe: The Climate Denier's Happy Meal.

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