In modern workplaces, email apps have a feature that allows the sender to indicate a level of importance—tags like IMPORTANT, URGENT or CRITICAL. The problem is that everyone adds an URGENT tag to their emails, effectively rendering the feature useless. Sustainability claims on food are quite similar. Everyone claims their product will personally deliver Mother Earth to safety amid smiling cows, free-roaming chickens and food so local that it practically grew in your backyard.
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This obfuscation makes it hard for consumers to truly understand the complexities of food sustainability. Let’s start with the fact that food production constitutes about 25% of all man-made carbon emissions globally, and since not eating is not really a choice, it’s worth paying close attention to. Even if we wean ourselves away from fossil fuels and slake our energy thirst by drinking straight from the thermonuclear fountain of the sun, it is estimated that the current state of emissions from food production will still push the planet over the edge in the next century or so.
The metric that really matters is the total life-cycle emissions per kilogram of food produced. This is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the entire process of producing a particular food. It includes, for instance, the effect of tilling land, which releases carbon sequestered in the soil. It also includes the emissions involved in the processing and transport of food. In the West, industrial-scale meat production on large farms is the worst culprit. Grasses convert a fraction of the sun’s energy into sugars and animals convert a fraction of that into fat and protein. On top of that, they breathe out carbon dioxide and fart out methane (a potent greenhouse gas). A kilogram of poultry causes about 10kg of carbon emissions and a kilogram of beef, a whopping 90kg. On the other hand, the worst plant product (tofu/soybean products) comes in at about 4kg, so the least sustainable plant product is still better than the most sustainably produced meat. Some simple ground rules—plants are better, and the more processing something requires, the more the carbon cost (grains, for instance, require industrial processing before you eat them).
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But it’s not that simple. India really does not have industrial farms for anything other than poultry. Most red meat production in India is small-scale, and in the case of beef, an extension of dairy consumption. Dairy products come only from half of the cattle population and WhatsApp forwards about cows breathing out oxygen notwithstanding, the rather uncomfortable fact is that the male population of cattle is going to keep adding to emissions as long as they are around. Even in countries like Brazil, grass-fed, free-range cows cause more emissions because rainforests are destroyed to create pastures for them. The ethical dilemma in the context of meat is that more cruelty often results in fewer emissions. Weaning the planet off meat and dairy is really just the only available long-term solution .
In the short term, however, one can’t force the population of the developing world, largely calorically undernourished even now, to suddenly give up their only source of affordable protein—the farm animals they rear in their backyards—simply because the West has built unsustainable economies over a century. The emissions from meat consumption in India are insignificant compared to the emissions from the West. Sustainability has to be squared with the more foundational right to enough calories to survive.
Let’s take some practical examples from India. The production of rice generates five times more carbon than other grains, vegetables and fruits because paddy requires flooding fields; this, in turn, encourages anaerobic microbes that produce methane. Mutton generates about 10 times more carbon per kilogram than rice but meat consumption per capita, in general, is very low.
These aren’t simple issues. Transportation, for instance, only accounts for 10% of food-based emissions, and even within that, the cost of long-distance logistics on super-efficient giant container ships is a tiny fraction of the overall emissions. Most of the emissions come from last-mile delivery on trucks to cities. So, an avocado grown in California and shipped to India is not really worse off than one grown on a city’s outskirts and sitting in a truck stuck in Bengaluru traffic. In many cases, growing food “locally” in soil and water conditions that are not suited for a particular crop may end up producing “local” food that is environmentally worse off than what’s imported from 10,000km away.
In short, pay attention to the life-cycle cost of emissions, and do so with contextual awareness. A farmer raising a few animals to feed his family as part of a circular, waste-free rural economy is not the same as a ranch in Iowa with a million head of cattle. Local isn’t always good and if you can afford it, consider eating more plants that aren’t grasses.
Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking. @krishashok
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