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Ask Umbra: Which is lighter on the land, wild game or farmed meat?


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Q. We all know that a plant-based diet is the best way to cut carbon emissions in our diets. For meat lovers, chicken, fish, and meat substitutes often steal the spotlight when it comes to “if you have to eat meat.” But what about the carbon impact of wild game? How can you tell if it’s locally sourced, and what is the carbon footprint of, for example, antelope burgers or wild boar sausage?

Also, we keep hearing about bugs being in our future diets. Are there resources describing how to farm bugs at home, since I can’t exactly walk down the block and sample grasshopper tacos just yet?

Houston, Tex.

A. Dearest Alex,

No grasshopper tacos in Houston? Restaurateurs of America, have I got an opportunity for you!

You sound like a conscientious eater, Alex, as well as an out-of-the-box thinker. And I think you’re also spot-on in your hunch that opting for the reindeer ragout or the cricket soufflé over your typical feedlot beef is likely a much greener choice. Not only that, you’re even going the extra mile by looking for local sources for all these alterna-proteins. In short, I think I’d very much enjoy a dinner party at your house.

Let’s back up a minute. As you point out, wild game is currently riding a surge of popularity among eco-minded folks, primarily for what you’re not getting: no artificial hormones or antibiotics, no water- and fertilizer-guzzling monocrop grains to feed the animals, no cruel and stinky CAFOs. Plus, hunters I know often wax poetic about how killing your own dinner connects you to nature and your food like nothing else. Eaters, for their part, may like to imagine an elk frolicking through the forest, wild and free, before garnishing their hamburger buns.

Here’s the thing about wild game though, Alex: If you’re buying it at a restaurant, butcher shop, or online, it came from a farm. That’s right – U.S. farmers raise everything from bison and elk to reindeer and bear, and are allowed to market it as “wild.”

Read more: Food, Living


Apocalypse chow

Want to know what the future tastes like? Eat some bugs

Welcome to the second episode of Grist Test Kitchen, where we taste green, wacky, and (hopefully) edible foodstuffs that may or may not be a part of a more sustainable future. After whetting our appetites with organic food-replacement drink Ambronite last episode, this time around we decided to channel some hakuna matata spirit and dig into the wild world of entomophagy.

To help us get in the mood, we invited the Bug Chef (science writer and edible-insect pioneer David George Gordon) to the Grist office to whip up a meal that would be both easy on the planet and on the palate. Hey, if he could make Conan O'Brien eat a cockroach, we figured he could get us to do just about anything.

Read more: Food, Living


Meat Shmeat

This meat lover isn’t giving up on the test-tube burger

David Parry / PA Wire

Isha Datar knows there are plenty of good reasons to stay away from meat. Like the facts that livestock production accounts for at least 14.5 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, sucks up massive amounts of water, and drives a heck of a lot of deforestation, just to name a few. But, despite all of this, scores of Americans still can’t get away from another, equally verified truth: Meat is dang delicious.

Isha Datar
Isha Datar.

So what’s a meat lover to do? Datar thinks New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of lab-grown meat alternatives (a.k.a. test-tube meat, cultured meat, or shmeat), is working toward the answer. As the group’s executive director, Datar believes that by taking animals out of the picture, cultured meat will allow us humans to get our fleshy fix while putting less of its burden on our planet.

It has now been almost a year since shmeat made its public debut, in the form of a $325,000 hamburger. But, costs aside, there's still a lot about the concept that sounds less than appetizing: After collecting cells from living animals, the cells are immersed in a nutrient bath, where they are left to grow into a sheet of tissue, which is then processed into a patty. Sounds more clinical than toothsome, right? Given the current romanticism of farm-to-table meals, will Americans be able to embrace a food product that's made from stem cells? 

Read more: Food, Living


Chicken tender offer

A meat giant gobbles up another meat giant

Tanya Patrice

We live in the era of meat mergers. In recent decades animal-farming companies, gobbling up competitors, became giants. Then those giants merged. Now, a meat titan is coming back for seconds.

The New York Times is reporting that Tyson has been successful in its hostile-takeover bid for Hillshire Brands. Measured in dollars, the $6.1 billion purchase is the largest consolidation in the industry ever -- though other mergers have meant more when measured in terms of impact on farmers and consumers.

Anti-trust experts say the deal won’t create an illegal monopoly, according to Reuters, because the two companies don’t directly compete. Hillshire is in the business of selling meat to us: It owns Jimmy Dean (sausages), Ball Park (hot dogs), Sara Lee, Aidells, and others, controlling 32 percent of the breakfast sausage market, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tyson is in the business of producing meat: It owns slaughterhouses and packing plants -- though it also sells to eaters.


Airbnb thinks your apartment would make a great illegal bistro


Airbnb, the outfit that brought you strangers-sleeping-in-your-bed-while-you’re-at-your-cousin-Maura’s-wedding-in-Connecticut is at it again! This time, the company wants you to make people you don’t know dinner, and pay Airbnb for the privilege. Where do I sign up?

Reuters’ Gary Shih summed it up this way:

Airbnb is encouraging hosts to throw dinners for strangers as part of a new pilot program in its home city. The company would take a cut of the proceeds, similar to how it makes money from its core business of letting people list spare bedrooms or homes on its website.

The startup began inviting hosts in San Francisco to participate in the dining pilot on Tuesday. A listing for one of the pilot dinners charged $25 per person for a three-course meal.

Marissa Coughlin, an Airbnb spokeswoman, said the company is "always experimenting with new ways to create meaningful experiences" and declined further comment.

Why did she decline to comment, you wonder? Maybe because the whole set up is completely against the law.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Fish are great at fighting climate change. Too bad we’re eating them all.

Hallie Bateman

Climate change may be screwing with your seafood, but it turns out your seafood has been fighting back.

Fish, like Aquaman, might not seem to have a lot of relevance in the world-saving department. Never mind that the world is 99 percent ocean by habitable volume: We're up here in the 1 percent of living space we care about the most, and they're stuck breathing through gills and riding around on sea-ponies.

But in a DC Comics-worthy plot twist, a new study shows that fish have been doing a lot more world-saving than we thought, by way of sequestering carbon to stave off climate change -- which on the danger scale is up there with supervillain plots like blocking out the sun or moving the moon. The catch (har) is that we can't eat all our fish and have them save the world, too.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


The Meat-inators

Move over, Avatar: Suzy Amis-Cameron (James’ wife) fights environmental disaster with vegan school lunches

Monkey Business Images

In the debate over healthy school lunches, it turns out that all you need to do to change the system is be a former movie star -- or be married to the guy who directed the two biggest flicks of all time. Or both: Former actress and model Suzy Amis-Cameron – James Cameron’s wife – is putting her ducks in line to see that the Carlsbad, Calif.-based school she founded will soon become the first to go completely vegan.

Such a bold move shouldn't be surprising coming from a school that was established out of a loathing for M&M’s. Amis-Cameron decided to start MUSE School CA in 2005, when she picked up her 4-year-old daughter from school and discovered that the girl had spent the day learning math with colorful, saccharine pellets.

“The school she was going to – that touted itself as an environmental school – was teaching my child to count with M&M’s,” Amis-Cameron tells NPR. “And everything in my life came to a screeching halt.”

Read more: Food, Living


Dan Barber is an Olive Garden man, and other insights from the smartest celeb chef you know


Last week, Dan Barber stopped by the Grist offices as part of a whirlwind tour for his recently released book, The Third Plate. Barber is the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill, in New York City, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, just up the Hudson River in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.

Read more: Food, Living


The gas is almost greener

Here’s a new way to keep cattle burps from toasting the planet

cattle feed and climate change

Telling cows to eat more slowly and avoid cola won't do much to curb their incessant belching. But the Dutch company DSM has developed a more bovine-appropriate solution for the climate-wrecking problem of cattle gassiness.

Staff scientists and academic researchers funded by the company have developed a powder that can be mixed in with cattle feed, interfering with the microorganisms that produce methane. Newsweek reports:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


now you seafood, now you don't

Six ways climate change is screwing with your seafood (and what to do about it)

This tuna is worried about climate change as well as the hook in its mouth.

Have you not finished reading the latest IPCC report? The definitive summary of what we're doing to the Earth's climate is only 1,552 pages long -- that's like a single George R. R. Martin novel, right?

Well, sushi-loving non-speedreaders are in luck, because a new report by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL for short -- pronounced, I assume, "sizzle"), along with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, turns the IPCC tome into the SparkNotes version of climate change's impact on the seafood biz.

Annnnd if that's not good enough for you busy bumble bee gobies, I’m going to shrink that down into even tinier chunks. I bring you the six ways that climate change is affecting your fish -- and for bonus points, a few things you can do about it.

Think of this as your bare bones climate-change-and-seafood study guide, and be ready for the pop quiz next week.

1. Climate change is, drumroll please ... bad for fish. Warmer water holds less oxygen, which will lead to smaller fish on average. Less oxygen means more dead zones, especially in near-shore areas where nitrogen-laced runoff contributes to algal blooms. Plus, ocean acidification is putting a lot of pressure on the small organisms which make up the base of the food chain. As a result of these stresses, in most parts of the world, fish catches will decrease by 40 to 60 percent. Meanwhile, catches at higher latitudes may actually increase, as equatorial fish flee warmer waters -- but plenty of fish in tropical or enclosed seas may just flat out go extinct. Plus, food webs don’t necessarily migrate intact, so predators and prey are likely to lose track each other in the shuffle.

2. Like $17 to $41 billion bad. That's how much climate change is going to cost the fishing industry by 2050, according to the IPCC. Furthermore, some 3 billion people get at least a fifth of their animal protein from the sea, and 400 million of those people depend critically on it -- so less fish means a lot more hunger. Meanwhile, efforts to adapt to climate change is likely to cost the fishing sector somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 billion a year from now until 2050.