Taking a Bite Out of Global Warming
Matt Mornick discovers the flexitarian diet, an easy, environmentally savvy way to beat the heat but still eat meat.
STORY BY MATT MORNICK
PHOTO BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
With the arrival of 2017, I began to rethink what this moment needs from us. Given the cast of elected and appointed officials who think the environment is not worth protecting, I think the needs are more pressing than ever.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, our planet is heating up, thanks to, in large part, our American lifestyle. Many aspects of how we live — our cities, the places we live and work, and how we get around — are systems we’ve inherited. Within them is less room for swift or significant change.
What we eat, however, leaves ample room for progress, the kind that immediately improves the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we call home. If you are curious about ways to make a difference, consider eating less meat.
Now, as stridently as I try to eat less meat, I usually fail. I display extreme reluctance to changing my eating habits. I come from a long line of omnivores. My grandparents raised cattle in Pennsylvania and ran a butcher shop in Brooklyn. My parents, who fought their way into a middle-class existence, relied on the convenient and immediately available protein — animals — as an integral part of our household diet.
Eating animals was, and has always been, a deeply rooted tradition in our home. And so was it for our species. The inclusion of meat provided a dense form of nutrients and protein that, when combined with high-calorie, low-nutrient carbohydrates, allowed us to develop large brains and, in effect, a competitive evolutionary edge.
However, eating habits of 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 years ago were entirely different from today. Today, we eat at the end of a complex industrial food chain, one that requires an unprecedented amount of natural resources and, as a result, is a driving force in heating the climate.
The more I researched, the more I discovered that flexitarianism — a reduction in individual meat consumption — offers an immediate, valuable, meaningful, fast, and inexpensive opportunity to protect the environment.
All food production has environmental impacts, yet the effect of industrial livestock production on global warming is severe. Mass-scale production, processing, distribution, and retailing of animal products in the United States is extremely resource-intensive and accounts for an estimated 9 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions; worldwide, estimates are closer to 15 percent, according to reports by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This may not seem like a whole lot, but it is more than the greenhouse gas emissions from every car, truck, train, plane, and ship on the planet combined.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector uses 30 percent of the planet’s total land surface, and the amount is increasing. The FAO also estimates each day we lose upwards of 50,000 acres of tropical rainforests — some of the world’s most biodiverse habitat. Most of this cleared land is used for feeding livestock. Specifically, in the Amazon, 88 percent has been used for growing animal feed, a report by the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found. This amounts to clearing every tree, plant, and rock from an area the size of Olympic National Park every two weeks, just to grow feed crops that plump up livestock.
Equally unsettling is the strain that the livestock sector places on freshwater reserves. Water irrigates feed crops, hydrates animals, cleans stables, and flushes animal waste and effluents from slaughterhouses. Globally, an estimated 22 percent of the water “footprint” of humanity is due to meat production, reported the National Academy of Sciences. They also found that by some estimates, between 1,600 and 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of feedlot beef. By comparison a pound of potatoes, according to the Water Footprint Network, requires 33 gallons of water.
In January, I sat down and calculated how many of my weekly meals included meat. I guessed the number was around a third. Turns out that with a burger here, a turkey sandwich there, more than half of my meals included meat. Despite a rich family history of omnivores, I was likely exceeding my ancestors’ meat intake.
With the cooperation of my fiancee — a graduate student in nutritional sciences at University of Washington — we designed a healthy, balanced diet. It includes foods we enjoy, with animal protein in two meals a week. Our focus is to purchase food that is predominantly plant derived, generated from sustainable farming practices, produced regionally and seasonally, minimally processed, traded fairly, and tastefully prepared.
It turns out that by January 2018, with my change to a flexitarian diet, I will have reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to not burning over 1,100 pounds of coal. This is not to say we all should cut out meat. But it is encouraging to know that subtle changes yield a significant impact simply by cutting back.
What you eat is an intimately personal choice. But I believe it should also be a highly informed choice. After two months, my mental, physical, and emotional health have improved. I also feel upbeat about climate change. Given the current political climate, that feeling is invaluable.
West Coast photojournalist Matt Mornick specializes in food, people, and travel. His portfolio is available at mornick.com.
Black bean and beet burgers
When you grate beets and mix them with black beans, something interesting happens: the mixture looks a whole lot like raw hamburger. Even when they cook, they look more beefy than beety. Cheese lovers, you’re in for a treat: Grated cheese is tucked inside the patties, “Juicy Lucy” style. While the patties cook, the cheese oozes from the inside out and forms a savory crust.
This is a weekend project recipe versus a quickie weeknight dish. These patties involve a few pre-mixing steps, all of which can be done in advance. But you get a lot for your labor—a full dozen patties, which freeze beautifully. I wrap uncooked patties individually in parchment sleeves or plastic wrap and thaw in the refrigerator before pan-frying.
Makes About 12 Patties
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, undrained, or 3 cups cooked black turtle beans with cooking liquid (from 1 1⁄2 cups dried)
1 pound red beets (about 3 medium), thoroughly scrubbed and trimmed
½ cup grated or very finely minced yellow onion
¼ cup quick-cooking (not instant) rolled oats or oat flour
1 ½ cups cooked medium- or long-grain brown rice, cooled to room temperature
1 heaping teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt (optional)
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ cup grated sharp cheddar or smoked Gouda (optional)
¼ to ½ cup neutral oil, for brushing
6 to 12 toasted English muffins or small hamburger buns
6 to 12 cups salad greens Mustard, pickles, or kraut
Drain the beans, reserving about ½ cup cooking liquid, and transfer all but ½ cup beans to a large bowl. With a potato masher, mash the beans until they are mostly smooth and pasty (don’t worry about a perfectly smooth mash), adding some of the reserved cooking liquid if the beans get dry. Taste for seasoning, adding a little salt as needed and keeping in mind that home-cooked beans are typically less salty than canned.
Place the beets in a medium saucepan and completely cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cover, and reduce the heat to medium, until a paring knife easily pierces the beets, about 1 hour. Drain and let the beets cool before peeling.
When cool enough to handle, peel and grate the beets. You can do this with a fine or medium shredding disk in a food processor or the medium holes of a box grater. You should have about 11⁄2 cups grated beets—don’t worry if you have slightly less. Place the beets in a fine-mesh strainer and drain off as much water from the beets as possible. (You can also use your hands and squeeze like crazy, just beware your clothes as you do so.) Drain the onion of water in the same way; it’s ne to use the same strainer as the beets.
If using whole oats, pulverize in a coffee grinder designated for spices or in a mini-chopper until powdery and flour-like.
Add the drained beets and onion to the mashed beans, along with the reserved whole beans, ground oats, cooked rice, paprika, oregano, salt, and pepper. With a big spoon or rubber spatula, stir the mixture until well combined. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as needed. Remember that the addition of cheese will increase the saltiness of the end result.
Using a 1⁄3-cup measuring cup, portion out and shape the patties. You’ll want them to be quite flat, not humped. Cover with parchment paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (If are you making cheeseburgers, this chilling step is essential; otherwise, adding the cheese is a mess.)
After chilling, make an indentation in the center of each patty and add 2 teaspoons of the cheese. Fold one half of the patty over the cheese and reshape. The cheese should not be visible.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Just before cooking, brush the patties with oil on both sides.
Heat a 10- or 12-inch skillet or griddle pan over medium-high heat. In small batches, cook the patties for 5 minutes on each side. You may notice the cheese oozing slightly; this is OK, as the cheese will create a tasty crust. If the pan is looking dry, brush more oil on the surface or on the patties.
Transfer the patties to a sheet pan and place into the oven to keep warm until serving. The patties will be slightly soft on the inside with a firm, crusty coating.
Serve on the buns with your favorite mustard, pickles, or kraut, or on a bed of lightly dressed salad greens. The cooked patties with keep for a few days in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Reheat in a dry skillet.
*(c)2017 by Kim O’Donnel. All rights reserved. Excerpted from PNW Veg by permission of Sasquatch Books.