No Greener Than Pork Chops: Processed Vegetarian Foods Aren't Eco-Friendly

Eating sustainably means eating less meat—an idea that has often cropped up here on the Food Channel, in the writings of everyone from James McWilliams to Sarah Elton to Helene York. True, pastured meat is better than conventional, as Nicolette Hahn Niman has passionately argued, but with global meat production accounting for as much as a fifth of all greenhouse gases, it's probably time to trade some burgers for broccoli.

Being an eco-eater, however, isn't as easy as forsaking the pleasures of flesh, as Kiera Butler points out in the current issue of Mother Jones. That tender veggie burger or serendipitously named Tofurky? It's actually not so green. According to Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist who analyzes the environmental consequences of food production, processed vegetarian foods, as opposed to unprocessed vegetables, are just as bad as meat. Butler writes:

... Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of "shooting yourself in the foot." A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.

That's not the only issue with fake meat. Consider the process that keeps your veggie burgers low in fat: The cheapest way to remove fatty soybean oil is with hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin. A 2009 study by the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming nonprofit, found that Boca, Morningstar Farms, and Gardenburger (among others) market products made with hexane. The finding was enough to turn Cornucopia researcher Charlotte Vallaeys off of fake meat. "I can't think of a single meat-alternative product where I could explain how every ingredient is made," she says. "With a grass-fed burger, well, there's one ingredient. And with grass-fed burgers I actually might be doing something good for the environment."

Read the full story at Mother Jones.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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