Get Behind Me, Seitan

Article excerpt

Why the vegetarian-equals-green argument isn't so cut-and-dried. by kiera butler

How would you like your burger cooked?"

I froze. The waitress looked at me expectantly. "Medium. You want medium," my friend whispered. "Medium!" I said.

"You sure about that?" Withering look.

"I'm a lifelong vegetarian," I confessed.

"Oh," said the waitress. "Weird."

My efforts to blend in at the burger joint were not off to a great start.

What was I doing there in the first place? Hive in Berkeley, California, where even the greasiest of spoons offers a tofu scramble. But lately, something strange has happened: Despite local food god Michael PoIlan's edict to eat "mostly plants," my friends seem to be consuming more meat, not less. Parties are no longer just parties-they're pig roasts, or chili cook-offs, or crab feeds. At the farmers market, stroller moms swarm the meat stand to flirt with the hunky, bearded butcher. Meatpaper, a fledgling magazine of "art and ideas about meat," has garnered much local buzz. And an acquaintance recently told me she's joined a meat csa (wherein you get a butcher box direct from the farm) for "environmental reasons." No doubt the bucolic pasture where her burgers grow up is a far cry from a Food, Inc. -style feedlot, but aren't my salads, cage-free egg sandwiches, and veggie burgers always better for the planet than any kind of meat-no matter how responsibly it's raised?

Not necessarily, says Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist who analyzes the energy payoff and environmental impacts of food production. In general, Eshel says, it's true that raw veggies are an excellent nutritional bargain: For every 100 calories of energy put into producing conventional beef, from farm to supermarket shelf, you get only six calories back to eat. Compare that with apples, which yield 110 calories, or raw soy: an amazing 415. In terms of greenhouse gases, switching from a diet that includes red meat to a plants-only one is roughly equivalent to trading in your suv for a Camry.

But a girl can only eat so much roasted kale before she starts craving protein: tofu, veggie burgers, and the (okay, creepy) occasional piece of fakin' bacon. But coaxing soy into a red-and-white rectangular strip takes work-which is why Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of "shooting yourself in the foot." A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a peaburger and a pork chop are about equal.

That's not the only issue with fake meat. Consider the process that keeps your veggie burgers low in fat: The cheapest way to remove fatty soybean oil is with hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin. A 2009 study by the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming nonprofit, found that Boca, Morningstar Farms, and Gardenburger (among others) market products made with hexane. The finding was enough to mm Cornucopia researcher Charlotte VaHaeys off of fake meat. "I can't think of a single meat-alternative product where I could explain how every ingrethent is made," she says. "With a grassfed burger, well, there's one ingrethent. And with grass-fed burgers I actually might be doing something good for the environment."

So plant protein is usually the greener choice, as long as it's not overprocessed. But for the meat we do eat, the best approach is to return to our traditions, says Jim Howell, a senior partner at the Savory Institute, a think tank that promotes ecologically sound grazing practices. Howell points out that the world's prairies coevolved with herds of herbivores, meaning that cows (and other grazers, like bison) are great grass farmers. While conventional farms rely on oil-based synthetic fertilizers, grazers make their own organic version- their excrement nurtures grasses that grow year-round. …