Less meat = less CO2

By ayr July 2, 2020

The other day I didn’t say something that I wanted to say. I was sitting in my car with music playing. My 13-year-old Clementine who is about to go off to High School next year was helping me set up signs on some of our restaurants for our re-opening. I was teaching her how to use Super 77 and how to load an A-frame with dibonds.

I had this strong emotion well up when I glanced at her bopping to the music. I wanted to say “I’m sorry we’re not handing you a better world.”

I quit my job at McKinsey & Company in 2008 to dedicate 100% of my professional life to having the most impact I could conceive of on environmental issues. And we’ve done wonderful things with Clover. In many ways, more than I could have hoped or expected. But from another view we’ve done so little. And there is still so, so much wrong in the world that Clementine will enter soon as an adult.

It makes tears well up for me a bit even right now thinking of it. And I’m not sure what stopped me from telling her what I was feeling.

Thanks for clicking on this link in the first place. Below there’s a passionate tirade. Then some facts about the link between meat and CO2. It’s great you are here. All of us (chefs, eaters, business-owners) need to work together to create the future our kids deserve.

I started Clover because I was beginning to understand that if we’re to reverse global warming, we need to reduce meat consumption. That was in 2008.

We’ve learned a lot since then. And if anything the evidence for this has become much stronger.

Eating less meat isn’t only for vegetarians. It’s something we all need to do. And by less meat I mean we need to get to 1-2 servings PER WEEK max. A smattering of vegetarian and vegan eaters isn’t going to do it. This is something everybody needs to do. Everybody means you and me and your family and your friends.

And I know this isn’t as friendly a message as you normally hear from Clover, but what can I say, COVID has me a little more blunt these days:

Nobody should consider themselves a friend of the environment right now if they are eating meat every day.

I get aggravated when I see this message deliberately distorted and re-arranged. Dig Inn has Michael Pollan’s beautiful quote in liberal use – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But what Michael means by “mostly plants” is reducing your meat intake drastically, to 1-2 servings per week. If you read his writing he does not use “mostly plants” to describe a salad or bowl with a giant serving of chicken on top.

I feel deep frustration as I see meat glorified. By our media, including Eater.com and others. By restaurants. And chefs. People who know better are still equating meat with strength, or manliness, or virility, or American-ness.

It’s time that the public image of meat matches up with the realities. These are all myths. And they are working against our collective interests.

OK. Enough of my tirade. If you really know me, you know I keep a lot of these very strong feelings quiet most of the time. I know that people don’t want to hear that what they are doing is bad or wrong. Especially now. And I know that our success to date with Clover has been driven by creating delicious, beautiful options for people – options they crave that happen to be no-meat.

For the most part Clover’s messaging is going to stay positive. I do believe we’ve done that right. But you might find occasionally that I drop that for a minute and get more frank, as I am here. I hope that works out OK.

Select facts about CO2 and meat:

  • Eating animals is less efficient than eating plants. That’s why the CO2 is linked to meat. A cow needs a LOT of nutrients (mostly corn) before you kill it. Far more than the nutrition you recover when you eat the cow. It’s estimated that you consume 20x more resources by eating meat vs. eating legumes (beans) for example. 20x. That means 3 burgers = 60 bean meals. 60. You could eat beans for a month and produce the same CO2 I would produce in 1 day eating burgers.
  • It’s not the farts. Methane is a gas that cows and other livestock produce when they pass wind. It is an intense greenhouse gas. But it’s a small fraction of the greenhouse gases produced when people eat meat. Most of the greenhouse gas comes not from methane but from the inherent inefficiency of eating meat and the deforestation that occurs when land is cleared to farm beef.
  • Eating meat on top of vegetables does not solve the problem. The issue is the embedded cost of the meat. When bowls, salads, etc. have chicken or other meat on top of them they are a bad environmental choice. It doesn’t matter how many vegetables you eat WITH the meat, you have to eat the plants INSTEAD of the meat.
  • You don’t have to be scared about not getting enough protein. Really. I know there is a lot of confusion about this. But our understanding of nutrition has come a long way since the days that scientists confusingly called animal protein “complete” and “high quality.” It turns out that our bodies make the protein we need. They make it from building blocks called Amino Acids. This is true for vegans and for meat eaters alike. Too much protein in your diet? Just like any other excess calories, it ends up getting stored as fat. Too little? This isn’t a problem Americans have to worry about. If you’re getting enough calories each day, you’re getting enough protein.

There are many people who have done massive amounts of great work on this subject. You don’t have to use me as your only resource. I’m just trying to distill some of what is out there to make it easier to understand. For more information please see these great overviews:

Scientific American — How Meat Contributes to Global Warming

Nature — Eat less meat: UN climate-change report calls for change to human diet

Lancet — Report on Diet

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