We’re trying to eat less meat, right? If you aren’t personally, you have likely heard it from a friend who’s going “veg” or have noticed a sudden rise in “plant-based” labeling. Between 10 and 25 percent of millennials are now vegan or vegetarian. And many more Americans are trying to diminish their meat intake in less definitive ways. Yet, as recently as 2018, America’s per capita meat consumption was as high as ever—averaging 220 pounds per person per year, or 9.6 ounces a day. Among the highest in the world. And we’re the second highest consumer of beef per capita, even after we reduced our cattle consumption by 19 percent between 2005 and 2014—dropping diet-based greenhouse emissions by 10 percent.
Debate over America’s hamburger industrial complex has bubbled publicly at least since Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906. Last year, with Greta Thunberg traversing the Atlantic and “flight shame” gaining ground, the world “woke up to climate change”—and, to an extent, meat’s role in it. Globally, agriculture, forestry, and other land use accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., agriculture is responsible for about 10 percent. Meat and dairy make up two-thirds of that. Beef alone is a third. And meat’s environmental footprint only expands when you consider its reliance on commodity crops like corn, its water and energy and pesticide and antibiotic use, and its potential contribution to acid rain, soil erosion, and excess nutrients (which can lead to things like algae blooms).
Meat processing plants—including a Tyson Foods plant in Walla Walla County—became hotspots for Covid-19 outbreaks, infecting thousands of workers in an already high-risk, low-reward industry, which has repeatedly come under fire for violating workers’ (often immigrant workers’) rights. The commercial slaughter system has become a bottleneck after years of consolidation. Just over 50 plants kill and process 98 percent of U.S. beef. During the outbreak, these systems buckled. Some farmers took to executing their pigs en masse—with carbon monoxide gas, or just a gun. Too big to send to slaughter, too expensive to keep feeding.
While Seattle is notably food conscious (and really into boycotting things), there isn’t a huge push to deemphasize meat here. That’s something Debra Music, the co-founder of Theo Chocolate, is pushing to change. At Theo, she considered chocolate an instrument of environmental education. Now, she wants Seattle to become a “pilot city” for a diet with much less meat. “I want to believe that there's the collective will here. I really believe people here care.” She thinks with more concerted emphasis on the topic—what if, once restaurants properly reopen, we did a meatless week?—the city could become a leader for collective change.
Maybe we will. Here are some ideas on how to get started.
Three Local Voices on How to Reduce
Blackinton left Seattle for Orcas Island to farm. Farming led to a couple conjoined restaurants—Ælder and Hogstone’s Wood Oven—where sometimes, without making a big Meatless Monday deal about it, the menu might be meatless anyway.
Garaventa is the butcher behind Vashon Island’s the Ruby Brink, a bar and butcher shop focused on getting people to eat animals the right way—meaning as parts of a diet rooted in sustainable farming and, thus, less meat consumption.
Howell grew up vegan, and after years in the New York fashion industry, unable to find a nice vegan restaurant, returned to Seattle. She later opened Plum Bistro, the sort of place to bring a date or celebrate a graduation. It remains one of the best options in the city if you need a reminder that eating vegan can be fun and adventurous—instead of a pious devotion to lost flavor.
What To Do... When Shopping
Buy Better Meat
This is the simplest step. There’s a lot of greenwashing out there, “cage-free” and such, so do some research. But meat that’s raised on pasture, as part of a sustainable farm, is generally better for you and for the planet. And the quantity aspect might take care of itself: Since it tends to have more flavor, you can use less, and since it’s more expensive, you may buy less. And about that cost? “The reality of meat is that you are killing something to eat it,” says Lauren Garaventa. “I don't know if it should be cheap.”
Choose the Fancy Beans
Because they are the humblest of grocery store bulk commodities, legumes—a staple protein for anyone trying to eat less meat—rarely get treated as something with a range of qualities. How wrong that thinking is! The difference between those kidney beans that have been sitting on a shelf for a year or two and freshly dried, well-farmed beans is immense. Good quality beans, properly cooked, are so superior in texture and flavor that they can easily be a meal’s main event: decadent even in their parsimony. And if you drop $5 on a pound of dried cranberry beans from farmer’s market staple Alvarez Organic Farms, you should still break about even with the dollar you paid for a 12 ounce can.
Eat Outside of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
Mushrooms and many seaweeds do not belong to the marquee food categories. Mushrooms are genetically closer to animals than to plants, and as it happens they share some of meat’s depth of flavor, says Garaventa. Seaweeds are nutritionally dense—nori is one of the best non-animal sources of B12, wakame is rich in iodine—and packed with the umami that many vegetables lack. “It's very sustainable and offers a huge range of brand-new flavors, for American palates anyways, and textures…I love kelp,” Jay Blackinton says.
What To Do... When Eating Out (or Ordering In)
Embrace Bivalve Values
When skimming through a menu (or a store), note that not all animal proteins are equal. “If you asked me what's the lowest impact food you could possibly eat, I would say farmed mollusks. You know—oysters, mussels, clams,” says Ray Hilborn, a professor in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. Hilborn published a study in 2018 comparing the environmental impacts of various animal proteins. Mollusks not only fared far better than other animal proteins—in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and potential to contribute to acid rain—but the tiny, nutritionally mighty bivalves outpace plant-based crops since, instead of potentially contributing to things like algae blooms, they clean water instead of dirtying it. Washington State, luckily, is the top farmed mollusk producer in the nation.
Fake It, Thoughtfully
There are now two basic camps within vegan proteins. You have the only mildly processed classics: tofu and tempeh. And you have the “plant-based meat substitutes,” like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger, and the “chicken” nuggets from local startup Rebellyous Foods. When you’re first venturing away from meats (at least some of the time), Makini Howell recommends you start with familiar foods. At Plum Bistro comfort staples, like vegan burgers, have been top sellers during the pandemic. If you’re seeking less processed options—nobody’s claiming lab-designed meat is health food, exactly—order tofu or tempeh from a restaurant, if you aren’t used to preparing them. “Try it from a restaurant that has something on a menu that's been there for a while,” Howell says, since the best way to turn yourself off of something is to have it poorly prepared.
If you want interesting plant-based options, where should you go? Places like Plum Bistro, Cafe Flora, and Harvest Beat certainly offer options outside of the here’s-your-veggie-burger carelessness that can dominate some restaurant menus. Another option? “I just ask people,” says Howell. “And they usually are like, yeah, we’ve got something.” If the restaurant doesn’t, any hospitable cook (during normal service, at least) should be happy to create something on the fly. Or, Howell jokes, just head to a bar: “Liquor is vegan.”
What To Do... When Cooking
Eating Is Not an Absolute
Unless you’re going vegan, don’t think about meat in binary terms. Making a hamburger? “It can be a combo between a veggie patty and meat patty,” says Garaventa. “It can have beans and it can have mushrooms and it can have whole grains in it. And it can also have meat in it. You know, it doesn't need to be all of one thing.” Ditto meatballs, soups, ragus.
You can cut back on meat in two ways: eating it less frequently and eating it in much smaller portions, as an accent instead of the constant centerpiece of a meal. To turn plants into main courses, Blackinton and Garaventa both recommend changing how you approach a hearty non-meat product: celery root, cauliflower, mushrooms. Treat them like meat and you’ll miss a steak less. At the Ruby Brink, to add complexity, Garaventa says they’ll brine or pickle mushrooms, then roast them, like you would a corned beef. Blackinton likes putting a whole head of cauliflower in a dutch oven and roasting it at a very high heat, so the outside gets deeply caramelized while the inside cooks. Or he’ll treat carrots like a steak: Hasselback them. Brush them with butter. Roast them in the oven on high.
Embrace the Cure
When food gets cured, smoked, or fermented, its flavors deepen, heighten. If you want to intensify vegan proteins like tofu, smoke and salt go a long way, Howell says. “Instead of a bacon, I use smoked tofu.” If you’re still using animal products, opting for cured ones means you can use less without missing out on flavor. So pick bacon, prosciutto, anchovies, parmesan, fish sauce. Something as simple as tossing roasted vegetables in anchovies as they finish cooking amplifies the flavor exponentially.
What To Do... When Storing
Thirty to 40 percent of the food produced in this country goes to waste. Because meat takes more energy to produce, it’s also one of the worst things to toss. Again—salt is your friend. Cured meats last longer. Buy an unsliced slab of bacon and cut off a little when you want meat flavor, says Garaventa. It’ll keep for weeks.
What To Do... When It’s Late and You Get a Mad Craving for a Dick’s Deluxe and All That Will Satisfy That Craving Is a Dick’s Deluxe
Eat the Dick’s Deluxe.
Hell, have two. Then go soak some lentils.
But Will Skipping Hamburgers Really Save the Planet?
There are a lot of ways to eat for the environment: We can eat less (on average Americans eat more calories than we need to). We can waste less (about a third of food waste happens at home). We can eat sustainably grown foods. And we can eat a lot less meat.
Will all of these together save the environment? They will not—not even close. For one, your environmental footprint is incredibly complex: Each light switch you flip, item you buy, gallon of gas you pump, and flight you take contributes. “The most important problem, when we start to talk about carbon emissions isn’t our dietary choices—it’s our use of fossil fuels, like full stop,” says Eli Wheat, a lecturer in UW’s Program on the Environment, who also runs SkyRoot Farm, an organic 20-acre farm on Whidbey Island. Many people, Wheat says, “feel good about changing their diet.... And that’s good. We should be doing those things. But ultimately what we need are societal shifts.”
But the two may not be unrelated. “What we ultimately need is collective, political action,” Jennifer Atkinson—who made headlines recently for her UW Bothell class on eco-grief and climate anxiety—wrote in an email. “We can’t solve a crisis of this scale and urgency through individual changes alone. But I also think it’s a false binary to claim that the proper response is either personal or structural. Those two constantly reinforce each other.” Since changing your diet is relatively simple (just say: “I’ll have the falafel!”), and involves constant choices every day, it’s a good way to feel like you’re doing something, instead of slumping into paralysis. For Atkinson’s students “food is probably the most common entry point into taking concrete action.” That is, the first step to climate advocacy is often a bite.