Monday, November 21, 2011

Mother Jones on holiday turkeys

Listen to your Mother:

So you've got your free-range turkey. This beautiful portrait is painted by Carolyn Guske. Your potatoes are strictly heirloom varieties. The cranberries for your sauce come from the local organic bog. Feeling pretty good about your Thanksgiving dinner, are you? Not so fast: The environmental footprint of food isn't always what you'd expect. Last Thanksgiving, PBS Need to Know took a hard look at the subject, from a diverse range of perspectives. In its podcast, which is definitely worth another listen, we hear from geophysicist Gidon Eshel, NASA agronomist Cynthia Rosenzweig, bestselling author Anna Lappé, agricultural analyst Philip Thornton, and animal rights activist Tara Oresick.

By now, most of us are aware of the outsized environmental footprint of meat. As Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, points out, the production of one pound of beef can require as much as 16 pounds of livestock feed. And that's to say nothing of all the waste associated with raising livestock, the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by the cattle, and the carbon dioxide created by trucks and tractors that transport feed and animals.

Of course, not all meat is as resource intensive as beef. Similarly, not all vegetables are as innocent as you might think. Geophysicist Gidon Eshel, whom I interviewed for my piece on whether or not vegetarianism is always greener than eating meat, says that in order to lessen the environmental impact of our diets, we should look at the efficiency of foods: How much energy is required to produce them, and how many calories do we gain? From this perspective, labels like "organic" and "local" aren't always the most planet-friendly choices. In colder climates, local spinach and mesclun, for example, are frighteningly inefficient because they have to be grown in greenhouses.

And the efficiency of foods can vary dramatically depending on where and how you live. Livestock expert Philip Thornton argues that Americans use cattle very differently from people in other parts of the world. In Kenya, families often depend on one or two cows for income: The animals provide not only milk and/or meat, but also fertilizer, so their overall energy yield is much greater. In some climates, raising livestock can actually require fewer resources than growing crops.

So how efficient are the foods on your Thanksgiving plate? The answer may surprise you. (Hint: Turkey is not as bad as you might think. Phew!) For the answer (plus an inside look at an Adopt-a-Turkey program in upstate New York, and more) listen to the podcast:

When you've heard that, check out Slow Food's support of a California 4-H project that's applying thoughtful practices to raising turkeys.


Sarah said...

You touch on a lot of key environmentally-minded reasons for drastically reducing or eliminating meat from one's diet. One other "inefficiency factor" that your readers might be interested in is the astounding amount of water used in meat production. Your Thanksgiving turkey might be local, free range, and even organic, but if you live in a place suffering from a drought (like a good portion of the Southwestern U.S. right now), is meat production really a wise use of local resources, when gallon for calorie, plant crops produce more food (thereby leaving more water for other human or environmental needs)? Just something to consider. The water issue is, of course, not limited to meat: you can also ask a similar question for water-intensive crops grown in dry or drought-affected areas (such as rice grown in California).

The local food movement is great, no doubt about that. But I think one of the key things we need to re-learn in the context of the local food movement is eating in season for one's locale, which solves the problem of large, inefficient greenhouses growing summer vegetables in cold climates in winter. Coupled with re-learning non-refrigeration methods of storing food through non-productive months, eating in season really cuts down on the ecological footprint of what we eat. In the U.S., we are so used to having most foods available to us at all times of the year that this is a very daunting prospect - and one that I am very, very much a beginner at!

PoultryBookstore said...

Thanks, Sarah. I agree completely. We can do better -- and eat better -- and feed the world better -- by doing it locally and in season.