Series | Hard Reset

‘Canceling’ carnivores won’t save the planet. Flexitarianism might, though

The average American eats 200 pounds of meat per year. What would happen if we took it out of one meal a week?

Conserving precious resources like water, arable land, and forest can feel ridiculously daunting; who are you, after all, to dare to save the Earth? 

But while skipping showers, shopping second hand, and switching to more efficient bulbs are all good, there’s a more impactful option on the table: changing your dining habits. Around 100 showers’ worth of water is needed to put just one pound of beef on your plate — if we used meat substitutes for even a few meals a week, the effects could add up.

How we feed ourselves — and what we like to eat — plays a large part in climate change.

A Hungry World

Half of the world’s habitable land has been given over to agriculture, and because meat is so popular, the lion’s share of that agricultural land — 80% — is given over to livestock. 

The amount of forested land on the planet has been slashed to make room for the animals. Between the fertilizer, farm equipment, supply chains, and even the, ahem, emissions of the animals themselves, researchers estimate meat production releases twice as much greenhouse gasses as the entire U.S. each year, and putting that meat on your plate adds up to about 35% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the Guardian reported.

Before you nope on out of here, putting a dent in the meat industry’s environmental impact doesn’t mean you must go full vegetarian or vegan (although more power to you if you do). Just re-thinking a few of our dining habits — like meat substitutes for some meals, using less animal proteins on the plate, and choosing more sustainably raised livestock and crops — would add up. And your dinner would still stay tasty.

“If you start to get outside of this traditional mindset of having a meat and building some flavors around it, I think the food can start getting much more interesting,” chef Laurine Wickett of Left Coast Catering says. (And Wickett knows interesting plates; she’s one of the chefs on the leading edge of using lab-grown clean meat.

“So maybe not everybody can buy an electric car, and maybe not everybody can put solar on their house, but everyone can change their eating habits.”

Using Less Meat 

Look, no one’s arguing meat isn’t delicious. Add to that our long cultural history of raising, cooking, and devouring it, and it’s little wonder that meat plays such a large role in our diets — and in environmental damage.

Even professionals fall into the trap of depending too much on meat to make the dish. While in culinary school, the focus was always on the meat, making animal protein the star of the plate, Wickett says.

“It’s kind of ingrained into us to believe that we need to have meat for our protein, for our wellness. That meat kind of feeds our bodies.”

And in rich nations especially, we’re now chowing down on a ton of it.

If you’re looking to move into making and eating more sustainable meals, jumping to using meat substitutes a couple times a week may seem a bit drastic. You can start by just letting other ingredients share the spotlight, meaning less meat consumed.

Take Wickett’s chicken tacos, for example. Sure there’s chicken there, but the bird is far from alone. Sweet potatoes, rice, beans, and tortillas all come to the party as well. This means you can use less chicken, but still have a satisfying, filling, and healthier meal.

You can also make the most out of the meat you buy; boil up a whole chicken in a soup pot, and you’ve got stock, meat for the soup, and more meat for sandwiches, etc., all in one go.

The veggies and fruits that help to beef up your sustainable meals — so to speak — can also be optimized for climate friendliness. Eat produce that’s in season; not only will it be fresher and taste better, but there’s less need for extensive supply chains to get it to you. And staples like potatoes, tomatoes, apples, onions, and broccoli are some of your more climate copacetic options.

Putting together an ensemble cast for flavor will also help if you want to start using meat substitutes for some of your meals.

That’s because the flavor profile is key, Wickett says. “Without the meat, you need to kind of build on your flavors.”  Sweet, spicy, salty, savory — get it all on there, and you’ll have a more satisfying plate, making you miss the meat less.

 Meat Substitutes

There is, of course, another obvious option: doing away with meat and using more plant-based options. Currently sitting in your grocery store are plant proteins designed to serve as ground beef, sausages, chicken nuggets, and any number of other meats. These have been deemed good enough for the Burger King and the Kentucky colonel, and good enough to be the sixth man of supper.

But you can find meat substitutes outside of the butcher aisle as well. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan are classic plant-based options that can be subbed in, and you’ve likely already had them, perhaps in a Thai dish.

Let’s say you’re craving a steak. While it’s not going to look the part, umami-packed options like portobello and crimini mushrooms can give you that earthy goodness, and there’s always the classic — eggplant.

Wickett suggests swapping steak with cauliflower. By cutting the cauliflower stem intact, and seasoning and searing just like she would a steak, Wickett can create a vegetable that’s worthy of anchoring your sustainable dish. 

There’s a number of ingredients beyond tofu that can take the place of chicken in your meal. Beans and sprouts have the texture and protein content to tap poultry out, and cashews in a chicken-free salad can provide a punch it may lack otherwise.

Taco Bell knows that potatoes can make a perfectly hardy taco or burrito, and tempeh, a type of marinated tofu, can take the place of pork.

Using any of these meat substitutes can put us on a path to a more sustainable food system.

Taking a truly actional step towards stopping climate change may mean rethinking how we look at what’s for dinner.

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