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for people who care about the West

Death to cheeseburgers? Maybe not


If you're concerned about the effect your food choices have on the environment, you might want to reconsider cheeseburgers. A recent study shows that beef and milk products are the world's most polluting foods, thanks to the greenhouse gases released by cows. 

Meanwhile, in what has to be awkward news for locavores, the study, reported by the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology, also found that eating locally offers few benefits in terms of preventing greenhouse gases.

Crunching numbers from the U.S. departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Transportation, a Carnegie Mellon University research team calculated that shipping food from where it was produced to where it's finally consumed creates only 4 percent of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Producing the food accounts for 83 percent.

So if you're serious about combating climate change with your eating habits, you need to make your decisions where they count. Locally purchased veggies, for example, have a larger impact on reducing greenhouse emissions than the local purchase of any other type of food, according to the study.

The production of cattle, on the other hand, creates so much greenhouse gas that the delivery from meat packer to consumer makes barely a dent in the cow's greenhouse-gas hoof print. Much carbon gets burned in the raising and shipping of cattle feed and in moving cows around during production. And even the grass-fed cow next door produces methane -- one of the worst greenhouse gases -- as a metabolic byproduct. 

The researchers calculated that if one were to eat 100 percent locally, a feat that's probably rare, it would save roughly the equivalent of one cheeseburger per week's worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

While the statistical averages suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from food transport are relatively small compared to the emissions caused by production, those numbers don't reveal that today's average production and consumption practices are much more polluting than they need to be. Meanwhile, the people who are developing, using and supporting less destructive farming practices weren't statistically significant enough to be included in this study, acknowledged lead researcher Chris Weber.

"The subset that gardens or buys food at farmers' markets is too small," he says.

If locavores and their ilk are too few to be statistically significant, it suggests that all the conscious eating that some people are trying to do won't do a lick of global good as long as everybody else is popping cheeseburgers like Prozac. Nonetheless, I prefer drinking the Kool-Aid of local, sustainable farming. Nobody has proven it makes no difference, and I think that aiming for a carbon-neutral diet has plenty of perks.

Reducing your intake of "average" cheeseburgers can't hurt your survival odds. Meanwhile, the above-average vegetables and grass-fed beef that are being produced with care by your local farmer offers, in my experience, above-average flavor. And getting your food from the source can offer a super-sized serving of fun.

At the farmers' market last week, for example, a rancher named Ernie told me about a blind steer he couldn't herd into his coral for slaughter, so the inspector and the butcher had to go into the pasture to inspect and kill it. "It's the best way," Ernie said. "I wish we could do it that way every time." Only under special circumstances, like with blind animals, is a field inspection permitted. "It's peaceful, there's no adrenaline; the meat's a lot better." 

I bought a rib-eye steak off of Ernie's blind steer. Then Ernie got going about how yellow his butter is these days, thanks, he believes, to the dandelion-rich diet of his dairy cows. At that point, I noticed Ernie's feta, which reminded me that I have a patch of spinach that needs to be harvested.

Ernie's blind cow, thinly sliced and fried with yellow onions, Philly-style, was spectacular. Ernie's yellow butter was so good I ate it plain, like cheese. And my spinach-feta salad, with red onions, was perfect.

The world has too many cows. But maybe, for special occasions, it's okay to have a few of our tasty bovine friends around -- especially if you're a fan of organic agriculture, which uses manure as fertilizer. As my farmer friend Steve once pointed out: "Somebody has to make that s---."

If we reduce the quantity but increase the quality of the beef and milk products we eat, then we'll eat better and perhaps live longer, while having more fun. And if there are enough of us, we'll probably leave a better planet behind us.

Ari Levaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a food writer in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].