What’s the most climate-friendly way to eat? It’s tricky

Plus, why climate hawks should heed the Chick-Fil-A cows and eat more chicken.

A black chicken with red comb and wattles
(Leon Neal/Getty Images)
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Canary Media’s Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

There are not a lot of nice things to say about the destructive, exploitative, sadistic, oligopolistic chicken industry. 

The American chicken cartel mistreats billions of birds, breeding and feeding them to grow so breast-heavy so quickly they can barely stand, cramming them into overcrowded sheds where they wallow in filth and disease. It’s almost as mean to the low-wage workers who risk their lives and fingers at its packing houses — and when Covid hit, the industry persuaded President Trump to keep them working no matter the risk. Big Chicken also shafts its debt-trapped contract farmers, fouls the air and water with mountains of manure, and consumes millions of tons of grain that require millions of acres to grow — all so that you can enjoy your wings and McNuggets.

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But here’s one nice thing to say about the ruthless industrialization of chicken: Over the last half century, it’s arguably done more to slow global warming than any other change in American life. The hyperefficiency of factory farms that treat sentient birds like edible widgets has made broilers cheaper, and the resulting shift in our diets from disastrous-for-the-climate beef toward mediocre-for-the-climate chicken has prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. The cows painting EAT MOR CHIKIN signs in Chick-Fil-A ads actually have the right idea.

The larger point isn’t that the nastiness of industrial chicken should be overlooked. It’s that climate action and climate policy almost always involve trade-offs. 

Wind farms can kill birds. Zero-emissions nuclear plants can go Fukushima. Electric-vehicle subsidies disproportionately benefit the rich. Replacing a coal-fired power plant with a gas plant can reduce short-term emissions, but also lock in decades of fossil-fuel combustion. Shutting down a carbon-spewing American factory can end up outsourcing the production to a foreign factory that spews even more carbon. And if carbon taxes and other unpopular climate-friendly policies cost climate-friendly politicians their jobs, are they truly climate-friendly?

It’s complicated. Earth is the only planet we’ve discovered with sushi, Rüfüs Du Sol and breathable air, so some of us believe our species needs to get serious about preventing it from boiling. But even for most climate hawks, reducing emissions is a priority, not the priority. Otherwise, we’d all be like James Cromwell, the Hollywood actor who recently super-glued himself to a Starbucks counter to protest the coffee chain’s higher prices for climate-friendlier (and costlier!) plant-based milk.

We all have a stake in the life-and-death matter of the climate catastrophe,” he explained.

He’s right. We do. A warmer world will mean more disastrous heat waves, droughts, extinctions, migrations, economic turmoil and political unrest. But very few of us will do what he did, because we’re not climate-obsessed enough to cause a scene or go to jail to try to disrupt a capitalist system that lets Starbucks sell climate-friendly milk at a premium and lets consumers decide if we still want to buy it. Most of us are not all climate, all the time.

So many trade-offs

The trade-offs have been particularly stark lately in the energy arena, where climate-hawk desires for restrictions on drilling and other policies that make fossil fuels more expensive have crashed into geopolitical desires to boycott Russian oil, economic desires to curb inflation and political desires to prevent a consumer backlash. Even our climate-hawk president is looking climate-dovish.

President Biden called climate change the greatest threat facing our country” during the 2020 campaign, and he brought an all-star team of climate wonks and activists to Washington. But now that there’s pain at the pump, he’s pushing oil companies to ramp up production, tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and extolling the glories of corn ethanol, which is even worse for the climate than gasoline.

There’s a reason we don’t have a President Cromwell. Even for politicians who recognize the depth of the climate emergency,” even when it’s in the news after brutal floods or wildfires, it rarely feels like a red-alert, call-911 emergency. No matter what he said during the campaign, no matter who staffed his administration, Biden’s top priority when he took office was fast-tracking economic relief, so he didn’t try to jam his climate agenda into his $2 trillion American Rescue Plan. And he’s continued to balance his desire to promote clean energy with his desires to promote products made by American workers, sign bipartisan infrastructure legislation, mollify the competing factions of his fragile Democratic majority, and comply with rules requiring exhaustive investigations of bogus trade complaints.

If Biden really wanted to put climate first, he’d drop his Made in America” push that stands to make solar panels and wind turbines more expensive. He’d figure out a way to pass clean energy tax credits supported by Joe Manchin even if it meant ditching other Build Back Better priorities. And he’d convince the Commerce Department to wrap up its ludicrous solar-tariff investigation, even if the sketchy little company behind it sues. It’s one thing to believe our planetary house is on fire; it’s a much rarer thing to act like it. I live in Miami, and I know it might drown someday, but I also know that day won’t be tomorrow.

The climate trade-offs can get even thornier when it comes to the food system — not only at the government level, where just about any policy designed to reduce beef consumption or cut emissions from agricultural production would be politically suicidal, but also at the personal level. Most of us choose what to eat based on taste, price, convenience and health, or at least our perception of health, with ethical and environmental considerations ranking far behind. Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other alternative-protein companies mostly advertise how delicious and nutritious their products are, not how eating them can save the earth.

As the Big Chicken example shows, even the ethical and environmental considerations can get tricky, because what’s good for the climate might not be good for animal welfare, water quality, soil quality, local farmers or subsistence farmers in the developing world. And while it’s usually pretty clear which forms of energy consumption are better for the climate, with food the climate trade-offs aren’t always obvious. Labels like organic,” grass-fed” and non-GMO” might sound green, but the climate doesn’t care how they sound.

Many Americans are understandably dissatisfied with our industrial system of agriculture, where big farms rake in big subsidies to pour toxic chemicals onto biotech grain, most of which is then fed to factory-farmed animals pumped full of antibiotics before they’re slaughtered by giant meat conglomerates. The Biden administration has vowed to shake up that system, taking on anticompetitive practices by meat and poultry processors. But the fact is that it’s an extremely efficient system, and since the future of the climate depends on producing massive amounts of food with as little land and other resources as possible, it’s climate-friendlier than most alternatives. For example, the U.S. produces 18 percent of the world’s beef with only 8 percent of the world’s cattle, so cracking down on U.S. beef would shift production to less efficient producers abroad, which would require far more cows to make the same amount of beef.

Cattle in particular are a climate menace. Beef is the leading source of deforestation, using nearly half the world’s agricultural land to produce just 3 percent of the world’s calories. Cattle’s burps, farts and manure also generate huge amounts of methane and nitrous oxide that are even more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. Depending how you do the math, beef generates four to eight times the emissions of chicken, and 20 to 50 times the emissions of beans.

So it’s great news that Americans have cut their per capita beef consumption by a third since the 1970s while doubling their chicken consumption — if climate is what you care about most. But it probably isn’t, even if you think it is.

Striving for informed hypocrisy

I eat a lot less beef than I used to, because it’s the worst food for the climate. But I still eat a little, because it tastes amazing and I’m weak. I also have solar panels and an electric car, but I’m writing this paragraph on an airplane, because I love to travel and I’m not Greta Thunberg. I don’t line-dry my laundry or unplug my computer at night either, because I’m busy and I’m lazy, and we all find a level of hypocrisy we can tolerate.

Most food choices have at least some negative consequences. Wild salmon is usually flown in from Chile or Norway. Sugar is not only unhealthy, it’s the scourge of my beloved Everglades. Vegetables are often drenched in pesticides, and tomato farms are notorious for mistreating laborers. Sri Lanka forced its farmers to go organic last year and promptly ran out of food; organic farms generally have lower yields than conventional farms, which means they’re also bad for the climate, since they require more land to produce the same amount of calories.

Most people don’t know that, because non-GMO, pesticide-free organic food has attained a green sharing-is-caring halo, while efficiency” conjures up images of amoral industrial assembly-line gigantism. But as long as I’m writing this Eating the Earth column, I’m going to keep banging my spoon on my high chair about the urgency of more efficient agriculture that uses less of the earth and other resources per calorie. By 2050, the world will need to produce 50 percent more calories without clearing any more forests, which means we will need to squeeze more calories out of the farmland and grazing land that’s already been cleared.

Even if climate isn’t your top priority, you ought to know that eating local isn’t necessarily good for the climate, either, because transportation generates less than 10 percent of food-related emissions. Grass-fed beef is even worse than corn-fed beef, because factory feedlots that finish” cattle with ungodly amounts of nutritionally optimized grain reduce the amount of grazing land needed to get them to market and the amount of time they’re alive to burp and fart methane into the atmosphere. If that grosses you out, fine, but it’s worth knowing. From a climate perspective, what you eat and how efficiently it’s produced matters much more than how well its producers treat animals and soils, or how far it travels to your farmers market.

Making climate our top priority would impact our other priorities, and it’s unrealistic to expect us or our politicians to ignore those trade-offs. But we ought to at least acknowledge and understand the trade-offs, so we can make more informed hypocritical choices. With a little knowledge, we can feel a little better about our chicken wings and McNuggets, and maybe even eat a little more of them.

Michael Grunwald is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time magazine and Politico Magazine. He is writing a book about the race to feed the world without frying the world, and he's co-host of Climavores, a new podcast about eating on a changing planet.