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The Humanitarian Side of Everything: At the Grocery Store

Welcome to "The Humanitarian Side of Everything: Creating Positive Impact in Your Daily Life" on Listenable! This is Lesson Six, and I'm your host, Alexa.

What's your favorite kind of burger? Maybe you prefer it well done, with a special sauce, or maybe there's a specific restaurant that you like your burgers from. For me, it's Burger Up in Nashville- I order the Woodstock Burger.

Now think about how often you eat a burger – maybe once a week? Every other week?

I was pretty surprised to learn that the average American eats three burgers per week. That adds up to about 50 billion burgers per year in the US.

We love our burgers, but you might not know that it takes 100 calories of feed to get 1 calorie of beef. You need 100 times as much land, 100 times as much water, and so on to get the same amount of calories from meat. Think about it this way: it takes 40,000 calories of feed to make just one 400-calorie burger. That's 120,000 calories if you're eating three burgers a week like the average American.

The vast majority of crops that the world grows go to feeding animals. It's an inefficient process that contributes to climate change and antibiotic resistance. For example, raising cows for meat contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest.

So… what are we supposed to do? Maybe you've heard of the impossible burger. It's beef made entirely from plants – think ingredients like soy and potato. And it tastes just like a burger made from cows.

The great thing is that an impossible burger uses 96% less land, 87% less water, and creates 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a typical burger.

What about other types of meat? Pork is less resource-intensive than beef. Looking at four metrics – land use, irrigation, greenhouse gas emissions, and reactive nitrogen – beef is less resource-efficient than pork. So pork is better than beef in terms of its environmental impact.

The bad news is that pork still has a negative impact on the environment. While it takes as much as 100 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of beef for human consumption, it takes more like 11 calories of feed to get one calorie of pork. So while pork isn't as harmful to the environment as beef, it's still very inefficient.

Side note: I mentioned that reactive nitrogen is measured as a component of pork production. It sounds like a scary term, and it kind of is. Reactive nitrogen is basically just an unstable, not great version of nitrogen created by fertilizers used in intensive farming, among other things. According to Wired, "reactive nitrogen increases atmospheric ozone levels, causing respiratory diseases and hurting crop yields." That's definitely something to avoid.

Chicken is the obvious thing to talk about next. It turns out that chicken has the smallest environmental impact of the three. It requires nine calories of feed to get one calorie of chicken for human consumption, a little less than for pork, and less than one-tenth of the calories that it takes to produce beef. Yet, still pretty inefficient.

Chickens don't produce methane gas like cows do, but greenhouse gases are still produced in growing chicken feed. Additionally, processing chicken meat to make it boneless or to create chicken nuggets requires high energy and water inputs. So while the chicken is a more environmentally-friendly alternative to beef or pork, it's not exactly good; it's just less bad.

However, there are some great plant-based chicken alternatives out there. My favorite is KFC's Beyond Fried Chicken, which is a plant-based chicken nugget. According to KFC, it "was the first plant-based protein to be offered at a national chicken chain in the U.S." The protein in Beyond Fried Chicken comes from wheat and soy, and the product was developed by Beyond Meat, a company that creates a variety of plant-based meats. Beyond Meat is such a cool company- their mission is to initiate a shift from animal to plant-based meat to create a positive impact in four areas: human health, climate change, global resource constraints, and animal welfare. I love that Beyond Meat recognizes how these issues are related and interconnected, and that their products can address each of these four issue areas.

Meat isn't the only food with environmental impacts. Food production, in general, accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to the emissions produced by livestock, crop production accounts for about a quarter of agricultural greenhouse emissions. These emissions come from the release of nitrous oxide by fertilizers, methane emissions from rice production, and emissions from machinery. Creating space for commercial farming also requires the conversion of forests and other lands, which results in less carbon absorbed by the land and more emissions due to the overturning of soils.

After the initial production of food, transport, and supply chains account for just under 20 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Transport emissions account for about ten percent of emissions. We talked about food waste in lesson four – which accounts for an even larger portion of agricultural greenhouse gases.

Knowing how much agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and, in turn, our own impact on the environment, finding solutions to mitigate these issues in our own lives can help the environment and create changes in the market. One popular solution is buying locally sourced food. This includes purchasing produce at farmers' markets, local farms, and locally sourced food available in grocery stores.

Purchasing locally sourced food has benefits for the economy, environment, and our physical health. Not only can purchasing locally helps stimulate the local economy, but it reduces transport emissions. In addition, local farms typically use more environmentally friendly farming strategies. Local farms use more natural fertilizers and pesticides, which often keeps the nutrient cycling at a local level and keeps the local soil and environment healthier.

In today's lesson, we learned about the environmental impacts of food. There are a few things that you can do to eat more sustainably – reduce your meat intake, eat locally, and reduce food waste. In our next lesson, we'll learn about two specific (and very delicious) foods: coffee and chocolate.

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Written by

Alexa Bussmann