Climate Change: Let's Get to the Meat of the Matter

When it comes to Earth Day, April 22, I have one thing on my mind: Making planet-friendlier food choices.

The first Earth Day was back in 1970, and a year later Francis Moore Lappé's book, Diet for a Small Planet was published, an eventual best-seller that persuaded millions that a vegetarian diet could be attractive and viable. I confess, in those days and for years after, food's impact on the environment wasn't on my mind, not as a restaurateur or as an eater. But even now, when plenty of people get the connection, Americans are eating more meat than ever, and climate change marches on.

Scientists say that we can trace an estimated one-third of global greenhouse gases to our food system. Livestock, including meat and dairy production, is thought to account for 18 percent of the world's total emissions. The United States has one of the highest rates of meat consumption in the world, especially of beef, the worst offender when it comes to emitting the greenhouse gas methane.

The average American consumes 84 pounds of beef per year, more than twice the average European and four times the Japanese, according to the USDA (PDF). That figure doesn't even take into account meat from other methane-belching ruminants, like sheep, or include dairy products.

If we hope to combat climate change, we can't keep eating the way we do.

There are many ways we as individuals can make changes. Some people find that a vegetarian or vegan diet works for them. Others may simply decide to eat less meat. It's tough to alter any longstanding habits, dietary or otherwise, but it's possible.

I've lived in San Francisco for years, but I only recently dined at Greens Restaurant for the first time. One of the best-known vegetarian restaurants in the country, Greens has been changing the way people think about vegetarian food since it opened in 1979. I'm not sure why I never ate there. Perhaps like many people, I worried that a meatless dinner would not be as filling. But a few weeks ago, circumstances brought me in. I ordered a cornmeal crust pizza with broccoli di ciccio, spring onions, and feta. Showcasing local, seasonal produce, and with just a small amount of high-quality cheese, the pizza was intensely flavorful -- and completely satisfying.

I was inspired to work harder to move meat off the center of my plate, or give it the boot entirely, for more meals. After all, I have no excuse: every day, in more than 500 locations in 31 states, our Bon Appétit Management Company chefs offer similarly creative vegetarian and vegan menu items that feature seasonal vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. And our guests who prefer to eat meat often find that they enjoy it even more in dishes that give it a supporting role, singing a powerful note.

Last week we celebrated our fourth Low Carbon Diet Day, when we make a special effort to highlight planet-friendly dining principles for our guests. Our patrons might notice it only one day a year, but the Low Carbon Diet is actually woven into our kitchen operating principles nationwide. And it's had a real, calculable effect: since introducing the Low Carbon Diet in 2007, we've decreased our beef purchases by 33 percent and cheese by 10 percent companywide.

I admit that I love a good hamburger -- once in a while. I'm not advocating that we all stop eating meat. I believe that everyone has a right to eat what he or she wants. And I'm heartened that many ranchers are raising beef more responsibly when it comes to antibiotic use, waste management, and humane treatment. If you're going to eat beef, I urge you to support those producers. However, the fact remains that beef and meat from other ruminant animals are high-carbon foods no matter how you slice them -- they should be enjoyed as an occasional treat.

If a custom restaurant company like ours can manage to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million pounds per month simply by cutting back on beef, cheese, and food waste, I truly believe that every individual can shrink their carbon foodprint an inch or so, too.

We can work together to bring about a change in the amount of meat America eats. Our own health, and the health of our planet, stands to benefit.

Let's make every day Low Carbon Diet Day.