Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Your Diet's Carbon Footprint

As a long-time vegetarian, I already knew that being vegetarian was part of "living lightly". I knew that:
  • Forests are destroyed to create grazing land for cattle, goats, and sheep.
  • Overgrazing leads to desertification.
  • Grain fed to animals could be fed to hungry humans instead.
  • Grain grown in huge monocropped fields degrades the topsoil.
  • Waste generated when animals are confined in small spaces pollutes waterways.
So I knew, in a general way, that vegetarianism was "good for the planet". Frances Moore Lappe first drew that connection in Diet for a Small Planet, a book I read in 1975 or so.

But now you can get more detail. The Low Carbon Diet Calculator, courtesy of the Bon Appetit Management Company, shows the global warming impact of any meal. The calculator is a snap to use: drag items to a frying pan and watch the gauge in the thermometer shoot up to the red or oranze zones or (more happily) rise just a green zone micro-meter or two. You can see, in animation and in full color, the carbon impact of meat, and, especially, beef.

Say, for example, that you are looking forward to that typical American lunch of cheeseburger and fries. Hmm, a red zone rating of 1,977 CO2e points (the points represent the amount of global warming from greenhouse gases generated by the meal). Substitute a falafal sandwich (you can still have the fries) and the score drops to the green zone, just 422 points. And you don't have to go vegetarian to lower your impact. A hot dog and fries weighs in at 750 points (green zone!), about a third of the cheeseburger score.

Even vegans (who typically win the "most ecological eater" contest) will find that not all meals are created equal. If beef is the villan of carnivores, rice plays that role in the vegan diet. For example, my beloved meal of falafal and rice (virtuously low impact, I thought) gets a warning zone rating of 1,064 points. Substitute oven roasted potatoes, and the calculator's global warming thermometer drops to 384 points. Go for pasta primavera instead, and the calculator barely moves, registering just 180 points.

Nice eye candy for your laptop or desktop. And you can even get the numbers while waiting in line at Taco Bell: text a food item to the site and the site sends back the carbon footprint rating. How cool is that?

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