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The Story of Food

In this video, we will discuss the impact of choosing a beef burger as opposed to a plant-based burger.
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We all eat food, that’s obvious. What’s less obvious is how our food choices might affect climate change. It might seem like a bit of a stretch but we hope to show you that your food choices can indeed help slow down climate change. In this story, we’re going to compare a beef burger, to a plant based burger. The full story of the environmental impact of each of these burgers is extremely complicated but we’re going to try to boil it down to a single score, their carbon footprints. For context, we’ll also use the carbon footprint of something we’re all more familiar with, gasoline. Climate scientists are saying that our choices as humans are creating more and more greenhouse gases.
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This is causing the earth to warm and our climate to change which is already leading to some devastating things like rising sea levels, oceans getting more acidic, stronger and more frequent mega storms, drought, and losing wildlife habitats, all of which directly or indirectly impact our food system. One way to know how much impact you have on climate change is to measure your own carbon footprint. We can measure this for a country, a community, a household or an individual person. Now, we’re talking about a single choice an individual makes, choosing a burger. A carbon footprint is measured in terms of kilograms or pounds of carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere.
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There are other greenhouse gases that we could also focus on, like methane for example, but we are choosing carbon dioxide for simplicity. A gallon of gasoline, for example, releases nine kilograms or 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’ll be our comparison measure. So, imagine you drive an average American car about 25 miles, and that’s what we’ll compare both burgers to. Now, let’s look at a quarter pound beef burger. A beef burger has a carbon footprint to about 3.7 kilograms or about eight pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, so just under half a gallon of gas or driving about 10 miles. What makes up these burgers carbon footprint? The cow lived on a farm for about three years, maybe more than one farm.
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It drank between five and 30 gallons of water per day and ate almost 25 pounds per day of crops like corn, soy, or grass. These plants probably used fertilizers or herbicides to grow which have their own environmental impacts as well. The cow itself also produced a lot of methane, which is the largest single source of the emissions coming from beef by the way. Once the cow was slaughtered, energy was used to transport it and refrigerate it, and trash from packaging was produced along the way. Now, how does the plant-based burger stack up to the beef burgers carbon footprint? One particular plant based burger has a carbon footprint of 0.4 kilograms or less than one pound of carbon dioxide equivalent.
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That’s about the same as using 1/20th of a gallon of gas or driving 1.5 miles in the average American car. So, that’s almost 90 percent, 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission when compared to a beef burger. Why is producing a plant-based burger so much lower in emissions? Instead of growing plants to feed an animal that we consume, we can grow plants that we consume. While there are still emissions generated from processing plants into a burger, it’s significantly less than a conventional beef burger. When we do this, we use less water and less land, and we produce less greenhouse gases than the current beef production process.
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This is just one example of how our food choices can impact our environmental footprint. While reducing the amount of meat a person consumes has the largest impact on greenhouse gas reduction, there are other food related decisions that can have an impact too. It can also help to buy local to minimize transportation and refrigeration needs. Some foods use less packaging than others or use packaging that’s recyclable. By paying attention to these other “stories of food”, your small changes in behavior can lead to positive environmental gains.

We all eat food, that’s obvious. What’s less obvious is how our food choices might affect climate change. We can measure the carbon footprint of a country, a community, a household, or an individual person, and here, we’ll talk about a single choice an individual makes: choosing between a beef burger and a plant-based burger, to illustrate just how much of a difference this can make.

Discussion: What stood out to you from the video? Did anything surprise you?

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