(Originally published May 30, 2016 on Examiner.com).
“In effect, everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Roger Sessions paraphrasing Albert Einstein
“The stupidity of man comes from having the answers. The wisdom comes from having the questions.” Milan Kundera
Science isn’t fixed. Science is a process. Thus conclusions based on this process change frequently as the process evolves. Outputs and data are dependent upon research methodology. Isolating or identifying all of the parameters is often difficult or impossible. Variables interact. Some variables are easier to measure than others. Biases often interfere. Thus science often is contradictory, nuanced and complex. Despite this complexity, policy makers, advocates, and entrepreneurs often oversimplify to propose rules, pursue agendas or sell goods and services. Oversimplification frequently involves the reduction of this complexity to numbers. Numbers, though abstract, are easy to remember and mindlessly repeat. Numbers presented as “facts” become actionable causes.
A recent “Science and Food” discussion panel at UCLA illustrated this reductive approach. During this discussion on dining and climate change, the founders of a group called zerofootprint.org discussed how and why they formed their organization noting their motivation, methods and future intentions. Chris Ying, editor in chief of Lucky Peach recalled his time at the 2012 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen that he attended with another one of the panelists Chef Anthony Myint owner of Mission Chinese and The Perennial in San Francisco. After that conference, Ying was motivated to do something that makes a difference. So after further conversations with Chef Myint, Ying decided he wanted to use his platform as editor of Lucky Peach to address the issue of climate change. More specifically he desired to create a simple straightforward platform to show chefs how they can reduce carbon emissions from their restaurant menus and operations. To that end, Ying enlisted the help of longtime friend Peter Freed, a 2004 Stanford grad who had previously worked on climate issues for six years at a small company called TerraPass creating sustainability strategies for Fortune 1000 clients. To demonstrate their process, they did a carbon footprint analysis of three meals to demonstrate each meal’s carbon impact. The three scenarios were a home cooked meal, a tasting menu at Noma, and a steak dinner. They presented their findings at the 2014 MAD Symposium. The carbon footprints for meals broke down to essentially seventy percent for ingredients and thirty percent for operations.
As Freed explained, these footprint numbers were based on lifecycle analysis. Such analysis uses measured CO2 and CO2 emission equivalents and translates these measured emissions into a single number to simplify things and translate very complicated concepts into ideas that people generally understand. Ying emphatically asserted these numbers are “exact.” However Freed, using an egg as an example, shortly thereafter noted, “generally what we do in a study like this is that we think of eggs as a class…we’re talking about eggs, not this particular egg or farm that it came from.” So every lifecycle number of carbon used for any discernable ingredient was essentially an average for the all the steps taken to get that ingredients from the farm to the plate. Those steps could include the carbon (or carbon equivalent) needed to grow the feed, power a tractor, heat a CAFO, transport to distributor, etc.
Obviously with any such broad categorizations, there will be a lot of variability. So, again using an egg as an example, the carbon foot print of an egg that a chef steps out the back door and walks a few steps to retrieve from a chicken coop laid by hens whose diet is mainly forage and insects will be drastically different than an egg transported across the country from a heated, ventilated CAFO structure laid by hens whose diet is highly processed mono-cropped GMO soy meal. Another good example of variability noted in a prior article is squid. Most of the squid caught off the coast of the United States is flash frozen, shipped to Asia, processed by cheap labor there, flash frozen again and then shipped back to the United States to be consumed. The carbon footprint of such squid accounting for all the utility and transport energy used obviously will have a much greater footprint than never frozen squid delivered straight from the boat to the restaurant where all the processing is done by prep cooks. So needless to say, there’s considerable inexactness relying upon averages and broad categorizations without knowing means of production.
Freed additionally noted “The research we do relies on the primary research that has been done by other people…” Thus the “exactness” of their analysis is further limited by the data that’s available. Freed further admitted, “we’re using life cycle factors that we get from publicly available sources that don’t answer some of the questions that we have personally…Is this type of tomato better than that type of tomato? Nobody has looked at that before, so when we talk about tomatoes we just talk about tomatoes [in general]…”
Thus the “exactness” of Ying and Freed’s carbon footprint’s analysis is also limited by the methodologies and biases of the other researchers whose numbers they borrow. Since science is a process, data generated via research is contingent upon the knowledge known at any given time. From a quick perusal through many of the prior studies citing the carbon footprints of food, the most frequently cited CO2 emission numbers for different food items came from research done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] in the United Kingdom. DEFRA’s numbers were generated in accordance with methods from PAS 2050, a UK Government backed and funded guidelines that are “…an application of lifecycle assessment (LCA) to calculate one environmental criterion: the aggregated GHG emissions of a product.”
As a sidebar, Chef Myint during the Q & A portion of the panel discussion cited a book he was reading “How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.” That book in its further information section, under the heading “where the numbers come from,” cites DEFRA as its primary source of carbon footprint numbers for food. The author of this book also noted, “I hope I have already made the point clearly enough that carbon footprinting is a very long way from being an exact process, whatever anyone tells you.”
DEFRA report provided emission numbers for livestock and crops. With beef, for example, DEFRA’s analysis is based on four scenarios for beef including intensive and extensive production methods. DEFRA’s 2009 numbers for CO2 per kg are based solely on all gross CO2 and CO2 equivalent emissions. These numbers only measure one side of the ledger. There are no offsets for carbon sequestration, methane oxidation or nitrogen fixing. The primary driver for their carbon footprint numbers for meats is enteric methane. Thus treating ruminants like vehicles in vacuums, divorced from their ecosystems, the worst offenders are the beef cattle that live the longest to make harvest weight. These obviously are those cattle in extensive (pastured) systems because without antibiotics, growth hormones and grains, pastured cattle live longer and, in theory, emit the most enteric methane.
DEFRA’s numbers didn’t account for mitigating offsets, like carbon sequestration and methane oxidation that occur in extensive systems, for a few reasons. First the emission research is ahead of the mitigation research. A lot of the mitigation research, especially the soil science is new or currently being done. Mankind, after ten thousand years of farming and depleting soils, only recently realized how complex soil ecosystems are plus how soil microbes transfer nutrients from the soil to the plants and vice versa via fungi. Unfortunately many of these soil microbes, like the methanotrophs that oxidize enteric methane, are not culturable meaning their impacts can’t be measured in isolation in laboratories. Thus the second reason mitigation isn’t accounted for in DEFRA’s numerical analysis is that the mitigation research is difficult and expensive to do. It’s considerably easier to do reductive numerical analysis on discreet isolated “cows” than any form of complete numerical systems analysis putting cattle into the varying contexts where they live Measuring methane fluxes in the field with lasers called open-path Fourier transform infrared spectroscopes is just beginning. Measuring carbon sequestration also isn’t cheap. The equipment is very expensive so very few people are doing it. However recent peer reviewed research by Dr. Richard Teague at Texas A & M and Dr. Jason Rowntree at Michigan State University published in the March/April 2016 issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation is further demonstrating that grassland ecosystems with cattle are carbon sinks, not emitters. So all the enteric methane emitted by well managed cattle in regenerative pasture is more than offset by carbon sequestration and other mitigating processes.
But a third reason that DEFRA didn’t do any similar accounting is because it’s easier to simplify and extrapolate the emission numbers to make universal projections, where sequestration and oxidation rates are very site specific. Emissions are easy to quantify. Mitigating offsets aren’t. According to Nicolette Hahn Niman, environmental attorney and author of Defending Beef, “…both the FAO “Livestock’s Long Shadow” Report and its update (done in 2013) specifically note that while the soil carbon figure may be substantial, due to the uncertainty surrounding its magnitude, it is expressly NOT included….”
Long Shadow’s authors also were proponents of “mitigation through intensification” which essentially means less extensive systems for grazing ruminants and more confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) especially for pigs and chickens. Thus that’s another reason Long Shadow’s figures don’t account for carbon sequestration and attribute all land use change to animal agriculture. There’s a political bias and agenda. Click this hyperlink for more detailed analysis of Long Shadow’s figures. For beef cattle, proponents of “mitigation through intensification would ultimately like to see genetically engineered animals that grow faster, require less feed, produce higher yields, don’t live as long and, from a GHG perspective, emit the least enteric methane. DEFRA’s numbers reflect these industrial biases of Long Shadow. Very recent research though, also from the UK, appears to indicate that the antibiotics given to cattle to allow them to tolerate grain finished diets in feedlots are altering gut microflora which is resulting in considerably higher levels of methane emissions in intensive rather than extensive operations. Cattle evolved to eat grasses not grains. Grains cause ulcers and acidosis so sub-therapeutics level of antibiotics are given in feed as a preemptive treatment as well as a way to enhance weight gain. Though ironically, as Simon Fairlie pointed out in his 2008 Guardian article “A load of hot air,” both Long Shadow and DEFRA’s numbers have been broadly used by vegetarian and vegan communities as well as studies attempting to prove that reducing meat, and especially beef, consumption or adopting vegetarian or vegan lifestyles will combat climate change by drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Though neither Freed nor Ying are vegetarian or vegan, the main take away they offered the audience given their analysis based on numbers borrowed was eat less meat. Though they aren’t telling chefs what to put on their menus, their analysis on the ingredient side also strongly suggests to reduce meat consumption. Like with eggs or tomatoes, they didn’t differentiate between methods of production. Freed also accepted the industrial view of enteric methane as the primary driver of emissions consequently he was particularly critical of ruminants. Surprisingly though, Chef Myint provided a contrarian viewpoint citing the Marin Carbon Project and how the beef he sources from Stemple Creek Ranch is carbon neutral. Obviously there’s some internal disagreement at zerofootprint between Freed and Myint. Freed needs to see numbers that are in the process of being generated and can’t be universally applied. So, at least for now, apparently he remains a skeptic of the whole premise of carbon neutral beef.
Myint also mentioned perennial wheat during the panel’s dialogue, but there wasn’t any discussion as to the importance of growing perennial crops or preserving perennial grasslands from a carbon perspective. As this article, Grasslands a carbon-capture colossus, notes much of the carbon in the atmosphere is due to land use change from grassland into cropland for annuals. Tillage is a major cause of greenhouse emissions. Tillage destroys soil microbiology including methanotrophs so tilled land no longer is an effective methane sink. Tillage also tears apart the mycelium, a network of fungus that plants use to exchange nutrients with the soil and communicate with other plants. So needless to say, like with how livestock is raised, how crops are farmed is equally important especially from a carbon emissions point of view.
And therein lies the rub with all this numerical analysis that zerofootprint.org borrows and recomputes. The effort to quantity and make accessible complex information to people really is more of a reflection of the huge disconnect that people have in regards to how their food is grown and raised. Freed stated, “For people, especially in urban environments all over the world, food is kind of the most direct interface with the natural world in many ways.” But the reality, especially for urbanites, is that this interface Freed refers to is a complete dissociation. Ying exemplified this disconnect with this admission he made around an hour into the panel discussion:
“I consider myself to be pretty into food, food knowledgeable, food literate or whatever. I visited this place in Washington at Washington State University … called the Bread Lab which was developing all these different strains of wheat. This really simple revelation that I thought would have occurred was like oh, there’s more than one kind of wheat. Like not all flour has to be the same exact flour. Just that super simple fact made me question every cookbook I ever worked on or recipe with the magazine that just called mindlessly called for AP [all-purpose] flour. But there is way more than that available.”
But Ying isn’t alone. As a culture, especially for people living in urban environments, we’ve become disconnected from our food supply. We no longer know our farmers, ranchers or fisherman. Our food comes via large industrial food conglomerates. Thus we’re more prone to resort to easy lists of do’s and don’ts of what to or what not to eat. Despite this effort to simplify, nothing really is that easy. The “how” and “where” something is grown more often than not is equally or more important than the “what’ that is grown or raised. Land isn’t interchangeable. Land is very specific with different soils, water availability, climates and micro-climates. Appropriate land use is what’s important though such appropriateness has been forgotten as, for example, ancient aquifers are drained to grow specialty and commodity crops where dry farming or grazing should instead be done.
Part of the problem with food media today is the focus on competition, the chef as celebrity and the end product put on the plate without much, if any, emphasis given to where any of the food comes from. Great dishes and chefs use great ingredients. That’s why Chef Dominque Crenn in her episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix stated, “The chefs aren’t the rock stars. The true rock stars are the producers.” Many chefs today are more in tune to sourcing better products, and many consumers are trying to reconnect to ranchers, farmers and fishermen. But most consumers still eat a lot of highly processed foods from corporate grocery stores, and many more chefs still get their produce and meats off the back of a Sysco truck.
Acknowledging farms and ranches that are utilizing environmentally sound methods to minimize emissions while actually sequestering carbon and carbon equivalents from the atmosphere through various techniques like for instance carbon farming, agroforestry, and adaptive multi paddock management, potentially would provide a far greater service for chefs than a carbon footprint analysis or another calculator using other researchers’ numbers. Certification like that offered by the Australian Government Carbon Neutral program could be a way for chefs and their customers to source meats and produce from ranchers, fisherman and farmers growing vegetables, raising livestock and catching fish in environmentally beneficial, rather than, detrimental ways. Though such an approach would necessitate actually learning about the different ways farming, ranching and fishing is done. Honestly after listening to the panel discussion, given Ying’s admission and Freed’s strict adherence to numbers, one would have to wonder whether or not Freed or Ying had ever left their urban environments and visited a farm or ranch.
On the operations side of zerofootprint.org’s carbon footprint analysis, a number of good points were made, but here too one has to wonder a bit about the metrics. Mention was made of demand control ventilation, electricity, and other energy saving initiatives, but the words “natural gas” were never stated once during the entire discussion. In terms of normal restaurant operations, especially in comparison to home kitchens, restaurants use lots and lots of natural gas. Most of this gas is used for cooking equipment. But natural gas is also often used to run hot water heaters, air conditioning and heating units. Even where electric equipment is used instead of gas equipment, a lot of the generation of that electricity is done with natural gas (or coal) at power plants. Note too that when natural gas is combusted, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
While carbon equivalent methane emissions for pastured livestock, and in particular ruminants, may be grossly over estimated for the reasons given above, methane emissions for natural gas exploration, extraction, transportation and storage leaks per several recent reports have been grossly underestimated by two hundred percent or more according to this November 2013 New York Times article, New Study Finds U.S. Has Greatly Underestimated Methane Emissions. Locally in the Los Angeles region, the Aliso Canyon leak near Porter Ranch was a clear egregious example of these problems. And even though that leak was plugged, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article posted in February, “…every day, pipelines across California leak tons of…methane.” Historically massive increases of atmospheric levels of methane coincide more directly with increased natural gas use than with changes in global ruminant inventories. Thus to a certain degree, one wonders with the eat less meat emphasis zerofootprint.org is suggesting that zerofootprint.org is barking up the wrong tree especially considering, per the December 2014, UN Climate Change Conference held in Peru, total enteric methane emissions in the United States, not even accounting for offsets, were just a little bit over two percent of entire greenhouse gas emissions.
Certainly eating less factory farmed meat is a worthwhile suggestion for a myriad of reasons including reducing greenhouse gas emissions particularly from industrial farming co-products like soy meal and the portions of the corn’s kernel used for animal feed. But as Nicolette Hahn Niman notes (in a video clip on the environmental impact of livestock from a recent Climate One Cowspiracy debate) well managed livestock is an essential part of a sustainable food production system because livestock help build soil fertility and soil health especially by increasing soil microbiology. Well managed livestock also improve the hydrological system as a whole because healthy carbon rich soils retain more water making more effective use of any rain that falls. Thus an eat meat less message that doesn’t differentiate between production methods that are detrimental or beneficial, undermines the growing number of ranchers employing environmentally beneficial management methods and as Niman notes in the video, “throws the baby out with the bath water.
So in addition to suggesting or certifying what meat to eat or not eat, as well as carbon friendly produce, on the operations side, zerofootprint.org could also encourage chefs to use high efficiency induction cooking equipment that uses less electricity and puts off less heat so the demand controlled exhaust hoods are more efficient and don’t suck as much conditioned air out of kitchen requiring more replacement make up air. Then, taking this a step further, ensuring that the electricity is provided by a clean green wind or solar energy source drastically reducing natural gas demand and methane being leaked into the atmosphere. Further steps, as the technology develops, would be using better batteries for storage so electricity could be locally generated from decentralized solar and wind sources rather than purchased from centralized utility companies.
Realistically this type of investment would be quite burdensome for small undercapitalized independents to implement given how precarious the industry can be. Though with better funded larger institutional and corporate food groups with longer more certain leases and a lot more time to amortize and depreciate capital improvements, putting photovoltaic panels and wind turbines with batteries, for example, on the flat roof tops of airports, shopping malls, strip centers or stand-alone units to power induction equipment instead of gas fired burners, fryers and other appliances would ultimately have the greatest impact at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the food service sector. Especially in public sector buildings like airports and arenas, things like demand control exhaust hoods and induction cooktops could be part of the RFP process and tenant criteria that prime or other vendors would have to comply with to get these lucrative leases.
Well, needless to say, at least for this author whose past professional expertise is in food service operations and kitchen design for large food service companies, UCLA’s Science and Food panel discussion with zerofootprint.org on food service greenhouse gas emissions was provocative and elicited a lot of thoughts to process. Hopefully the zero footprint organization’s knowledge will evolve so they have a greater and deeper understanding of the consulting advice they’re offering rather than rely solely on abstract numbers generated by other people. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, numbers and numerical analysis can’t replace and reduce complex problems to simple solutions. Numerical analysis has severe limitations and further depicts the dissociation and disconnection between what we eat, knowing how and where food is grown and raised plus what the real actual environmental impacts are. You can’t assess those impacts from starring at a computer screen and plugging in numbers into a spreadsheet in an office. You have to get out of your office, laboratory or ivory tower and get back out onto the land to talk to farmers and ranchers to truly understand the interconnected web of life within the context of those ecosystems or methods of production, you’re trying to reduce and quantify.
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