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A vegetarian diet reduces the diner's carbon footprint

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  • A vegetarian diet reduces the diner's carbon footprint

    Whole-Wheat Spaghetti With Hazelnuts and Asparagus,
    an easy but distinctive dish to make for a vegetarian plate

    PARIS, June 6, 2007: A strategy to tackle global warming is a must-have for businesses this year, and the food industry is no exception. Can it be a surprise that some claims are hard to judge and others, well, a bit too rich to swallow?

    The latest claim to catch my eye is an advertising campaign by a Japanese ice cream maker, Lotte. It recommends eating its frozen goods as a way of combating climate change. By reducing body temperature, ice cream lowers demand for air conditioning, and that in turn is supposed to help to stem emissions of planet-warming gases.

    Attempts to get someone at Lotte to comment were unsuccessful, but one can assume that its tongue is firmly planted in cheek. But don't be deceived: There are strong links between food and global warming. Some of the most serious center on how food is produced and transported. And much of the focus is on meat and dairy.

    Production and consumption of meat worldwide has more than tripled since 1961 and could double from now until 2050 as standards of living increase and the population doubles.

    As a result, vast swaths of forest are being cleared for pastures, robbing the planet of trees, which absorb carbon dioxide. Cattle and sheep also release vast amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations produced startling findings: The animals' burps, the nitrous oxide gases from their decomposing manure and other factors, including the energy needed to store and transport meat, were responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions - more than the entire transportation sector.

    Meat producers say they already have made significant changes to reduce the impact of their industry - in part by ensuring that cattle, sheep and pigs spend less time on farms before they are slaughtered.

    "Within Europe, we already are going for environmentally friendly production," said Jon Bullock, a spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission in England.

    Retailers, meanwhile, are seeking ways to give consumers ever greater amounts of information about their shopping. But while many consumers seem willing to pay extra for food with less impact on the environment, there still are few ways to compare products accurately.

    One of the difficulties, pollution experts say, is figuring out at what point to begin measuring the carbon footprint of a finished product, particularly when supply chains have become so long and complicated.

    "If everyone is measuring using a different scope, they are not going to be comparable, and that will render them meaningless," said Belinda Howell, chief executive of Greenstone Carbon Management, a London-based consulting company. The situation is especially confusing for food suppliers, who are under increasing pressure from top British supermarkets to do more to account for their emissions.

    Those kinds of details, said Howell, "will become an important part of the mix of information needed to retain contracts in the future."

    In a bid to clear up the confusion, the British government announced an initiative last week that could help harmonize the myriad ways of examining carbon footprints from food and other consumer goods. Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, known as Defra, say their goal is to produce a single standard that can be taken up by the rest of the world.

    "This is important work and will be fundamental in our efforts to move Britain toward a low-carbon economy in the decades ahead," said Britain's minister for climate change and environment, Ian Pearson.

    Perhaps a trickier issue, however, is whether governments should be telling citizens what they ought to be eating.

    Defra officials say a diet low in animal proteins could make a difference in the fight against climate change. But they shy away from recommending a vegetarian lifestyle.

    "These are not all-or-nothing choices and the government is not suggesting people should stop eating meat altogether," said a Defra spokeswoman, who requested anonymity based on Defra policy.

    Some campaigners see a missed opportunity. They say recommendations by governments to phase out meat-eating could have a far greater effect on reducing emissions than other global warming campaigns, like changing to low-energy light bulbs or taking public transportation.

    "The answer is for people to move toward a plant-based diet if they're serious about global warming," said Justin Kerswell, a spokesman for Viva!, an animal rights group based in England. Such claims seem to be winning academic backing - and not only in green-minded Britain.

    Gidon Eshel, a Bard Center fellow at Bard College in upstate New York, said his studies show that the average American diet each year requires the production of greenhouse gases equivalent to an extra ton and a half of carbon dioxide compared with a strictly vegetarian diet. "If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you've already made a substantial difference," Eshel said.

    Ice cream, Eshel added, is roughly as bad for the environment because it also comes from cows. "Only eat it if you really must, is my view."

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