Diet For A Cool Planet

What does the food in my plate have to do with global warming? The short answer is “everything”, if you subscribe to the prevailing scientific view that climate change is caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

According to United Nations reports, agriculture worldwide is responsible indeed for about 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Pesticides and fertilizers are brewed using highly polluting processes, industrial farms spare no energy-intensive machinery to tend to their crops (including planes), while the burning of crop residues is a widespread practice on most continents. Meanwhile, rice fields and cattle emit vast quantities of methane (CH4), a gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Livestock alone accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Last but not least, our food routinely travels 1,500 miles to reach our table.

In how many ways can you say: our food chain, that relies heavily on industrial farming and international trade, is bad news for the planet? (Just as it is for our bodies and our communities, but I digress.)

Now, here is the best kept secret in today’s public debate about global warming: agriculture is actually the cheapest and most accessible tool at our disposal to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions in the short term. Regenerative, sustainable farming practices shrink the carbon footprint of agriculture AND help reduce the amount of carbon already present in the atmosphere. According to conservative estimates, land farmed sustainably can store 10 percent to 15 percent of the carbon emissions we produce each year.

All of us should care deeply about this piece of data even if we’re no farmers, for all of us eat and—hopefully—more and more of us are discovering the great joy of sharing delicious meals with our loved ones. More carbon in the soil means a richer soil with a denser microbial life, which translates into healthier and tastier plants and animals, in other words better food on our plates.

Chef Laura Stec

That’s what chef and environmental activist Laura Stec calls the “culinary perspective on global warming”. Invited for a talk this week at the San Francisco Public Library, she made the point that many of us know how to green our eating habits: eating less meat; not buying food grown with petroleum-based fertilizers, raised in oil-powered greenhouses, or flown in from 1,500 miles away; favoring locally-produced food as much as possible by supporting local farms and patronizing farmers’ markets; not wasting food but composting it; minimizing our oil-powered food-shopping trips; drinking home-filtered tap water.

Truth be told, this list of “dos” and “don’ts” is not likely to rally the crowds to the cause. However, “eaters are motivated by taste and pleasure”, Laura told her audience. Hence her focus on giving people what they want as opposed to telling them what they need to do. The latter is the scientist’s responsibility while the former is the chef’s pregorative, she explained with infectious enthusiasm and energy. For instance, she says, think of soil as seasoning and grass as marinade: vegetables grown on a vibrant, carbon-rich soil (which she calls “High Vibe Food”) will surprise and delight your taste buds used to today’s standard produce; and you will find that pasture-raised beef is flavored by the various grasses available to the animals throughout their life.

The outcome of her vision is “Cool Cuisine”, a book co-authored with climate change expert Dr. Eugene Cordero of San José State University. It draws the relationship between our food and climate change in didactic, attractive pages, and offers recipes to help us promote a green food chain.

Her bet is that, as we educate ourselves to the superior taste and experience of food produced with no harm to the planet, the Epicureans in us will choose this food over the run-of-the-mill supermarket fare any day, global warming aside. Out of sheer enjoyment. Contrary to popular belief, she stresses, we don’t have to break the bank either—especially since the shift typically entails cooking at home more often as opposed to eating out, and cutting down on meat consumption.

In her view, it’s mostly a matter of learning a few tricks in the kitchen since this is where it all starts. “It’s imperative that we learn how to cook again and relate to the food as energy”, she said. “So that we can discover, or rediscover, that eating is not just about satisfying our stomachs, but our heads and our hearts as well.”

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