The key to healthy food choices for the planet

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In modern workplaces, messaging apps have a feature that allows the sender to indicate an importance level, tags like IMPORTANT, URGENT, or CRITICAL. The problem is, everyone adds an URGENT tag to their emails, making the feature unnecessary. The sustainability claims on foods are quite similar. Everyone claims their product will personally deliver Mother Earth to safety amid smiling cows, free-range chickens, and food so local it has practically grown in your backyard.

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This obscuration makes it difficult for consumers to truly understand the complexities of food sustainability. Let’s start with the fact that food production constitutes about 25% of all human-made carbon emissions in the world, and since not eating isn’t really a choice, it’s worth paying special attention to. . Even as we move away from fossil fuels and quench our thirst for energy by drinking directly from the sun’s thermonuclear fountain, it is estimated that the current state of emissions from food production will further push the planet to the brink over the course of the decade. 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 throughout the production process of a particular food. It includes, for example, the effect of tillage, which releases carbon sequestered in the soil. It also includes emissions from food processing and transportation. In the West, industrial-scale meat production on large farms is the worst culprit. Grasses convert a fraction of solar energy into sugars, and animals convert a fraction into fats and proteins. On top of that, they exhale carbon dioxide and fart methane (a potent greenhouse gas). One kilogram of poultry causes around 10 kg of carbon emissions and one kilogram of beef causes a whopping 90 kg. On the other hand, the worst plant product (tofu / soy products) weighs around 4kg, so the less sustainable plant product is always better than the most sustainably produced meat. A few simple rules of thumb: Plants are better, and the more something needs processing, the higher the carbon cost (grains, for example, require industrial processing before being eaten).

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But it is not that simple. India really does not have factory farms for anything other than poultry. Most of the production of red meat in India is small-scale and, in the case of beef, an expansion of consumption of dairy products. Dairy products only come from half of the cattle population and WhatsApp says cows exhale oxygen, the rather uncomfortable fact is that the male cattle population is going to keep increasing emissions as long as they are there. Even in countries like Brazil, grass-fed, free-range cows cause more emissions because rainforests are being destroyed to create pasture for them. The ethical dilemma in the context of meat is that more cruelty often results in less emissions. Weaning the planet off meat and dairy products is really only the only long-term solution available.

In the short term, however, one cannot force the population of the developing world, still largely calorically undernourished, to suddenly abandon their only source of affordable protein — the farm animals they keep in their backyards. simply because the West has been building unsustainable economies for a century. Emissions from meat consumption in India are insignificant compared to emissions in the West. Sustainability must be squared with the more basic right to enough calories to survive.

Let us take some practical examples from India. Rice production generates five times more carbon than other grains, vegetables and fruits because rice requires fields to be flooded; this, in turn, encourages anaerobic microbes which produce methane. Mutton generates about 10 times more carbon per kilogram than rice, but per capita meat consumption is generally very low.

These are not simple problems. Transportation, for example, only accounts for 10% of food-borne emissions, and even within it, the cost of long-distance logistics on super-efficient giant container ships is only a tiny fraction. fraction of global emissions. Most of the emissions come from last mile truck delivery to cities. So an avocado grown in California and shipped to India isn’t much worse than an avocado grown on the outskirts of a city and sitting in a truck stuck in Bengaluru traffic. In many cases, growing food “locally” in soil and water conditions that are not suited to a particular crop can end up producing “local” foods that are environmentally worse than those imported from 10. 000 km away.

In short, pay attention to the life cycle cost of emissions and do so with context. A farmer raising a few animals to feed his family in a circular, waste-free rural economy is not the same as a ranch in Iowa with a million head of cattle. The local isn’t always good and if you can afford it, consider eating more plants that aren’t grasses.

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Illustration by Krish Ashok

Illustration by Krish Ashok


Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking. @krishashok

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