You emit what you eat: A mosaic about food choices and climate change

This is not a mosaic about cow farts. I mean, sure, that’s part of it, but the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from our food choices are far more complex than just some passed gas. There are all sorts of ways to reduce the climate impact of our eating habits, but this mosaic focuses on meat consumption. Please rest assured: I am not trying to pry your steaks out of your cold dead hands. I am not saying it’s vegan or bust. I am simply advocating for moderation. For a wee bit of restraint.

There are GHG emissions associated with everything we eat, from lentils to sirloin to apple pie. More than one quarter of the world’s emissions come from our food system—growing and harvesting the food, transporting and storing it, processing it, and then disposing of it—and about 80% of these emissions come from raising livestock. Among the biggest culprits is red meat: on a serving-to-serving basis, beef has a carbon footprint 6 times larger than poultry (though cheese is also pretty emissions-intensive). Essentially, the higher up on the food chain you eat, the more you emit. Of course, there are all sorts of qualifiers, like how your meat is raised (e.g., factory farm vs. small-scale pastured), how far it travels, how much of it you eat, and yes, how much it farts, but the simple fact remains: when it comes to meat, it takes calories to make calories. And as those calories move up the food chain, there is always waste. There is never a perfect transfer of energy from grain to animal to our plates—animals “waste” energy by doing animal things like frolicking in the pasture (if they’re lucky enough to live in one and not in a feedlot).

Emissions from food are projected to increase as consumption rises and as more people adopt a more meat-based diet. But opportunities abound to reduce food-related emissions. A 2016 study estimated the emission reductions possible under four different scenarios: (1) business as usual, (2) most people abstain from red meat and poultry, (3) most go vegan, and (4) people follow food guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and eat only the calories they require, focusing on fruits and vegetables and small portions of meat. If everyone just followed those sensible food guidelines, emissions in 2050 would be 29% lower. If they skipped the red meat and poultry, the decrease would be 55%, and it would be a whopping 70% if we all went vegan.

But like I said at the beginning, I’m not going to take a hardcore stance and insist that we all become vegans. Heck, I’m not even a vegan. I’m not even 100% vegetarian! I guess I’d call myself a flexitarian, but I “flex” only very occasionally, and generally only for “happy meat” (meat that’s been raised sustainably). To me, Michael Pollan said it best when he said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption

“Pollan’s Rule (Mostly Plants)” (2017), 20.25″ x 15.25″ — bones, shale, dishes, gold smalti

This mosaic is about the third part of that quote. The bones were sourced from meat-eating friends. Before they made their way to me, they were used to make beef and turkey stock, a rack of lamb, pork chops, and even chicken wings. Here you’ll see them surrounded by shale as a nod to the emissions associated with them. And it’s important to note that on the central “plate” there are still bones, just not all that many. Like I (well, Pollan) said, mostly plants.

There is something fascinating and beautiful but oddly unsettling and a bit macabre about the bones. In this context, they are thoughtfully used and treated with respect, which is basically how we should treat the meat in our diet: with care and reverence.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail of bone

Oooooh! Eeewww!

The dishes that make up the rest of the mosaic were ours. Two plates from our university days, a favourite mug that took an unfortunate tumble in the dishwasher, and a chipped creamer that we finally replaced. It was important to me to use our dishes. They represent various points in our lives, dietarily speaking. They represent the progress we’ve made. They were with us when we phased out most of the meat in our diet. They were with us as we gradually became more and more committed to buying local and organic and cooking our food from scratch (as Pollan would say, “Eat food.”). They were there when I quit taking milk in my coffee, cold turkey. Over the years, our diets have become much more climate friendly, which we feel pretty darn good about.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail

Cherished dishes that have seen our eating habits change, now being used in a mosaic that will hopefully inspire others to make a change

I’m not asking you to become a vegan overnight. Just to cut back a bit. Try Meatless Mondays. Commit to buying “happy meat”. Treat meat as a side dish, not the star attraction. And gosh darn it, eat some lentils.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption - angle detail

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2 Responses to You emit what you eat: A mosaic about food choices and climate change

  1. Rita Argueta March 30, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    Fascinante Julie !

  2. Helen Miles Mosaics April 6, 2017 at 2:21 am #

    Powerful, articulate, beautiful and persuasive – as ever!

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