The Most Climate-Friendly Diet Might Involve … Chicken?

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Written By Pinang Driod

The same bit of wisdom gets repeated over and over and over again: If you want to reduce the carbon emissions of your diet, eat less meat. If you really care about climate change, cut out animal products, period.

It’s such simple guidance! And yet it has instigated so much hand-wringing and back-bending so that people can still eat what they like to eat—which, in most places with Western tastes, includes hefty quantities of animal products. Billions of dollars have been invested in start-ups engineering plant-based replications of the juice that drips from a hamburger, the creaminess of dairy, the crunch of shrimp. Some have argued for the ostensible ecological benefits of raising beef and lamb on grassland, where gains in soil health from fertilization could offset the carbon emissions produced by ruminant livestock. Many a vegetarian has rationalized their prodigious consumption of cheese because, well, vegetarianism is good for the climate, isn’t it?

Every piece of realistic climate advice—the kind that could actually be adopted by a critical mass of people—is a compromise between the very best thing we can do and what we already do. And because of the distance between those two poles, that compromise is bound to be frustrating in some way for pretty much everyone. Somehow, a climate-conscious diet must simultaneously recognize the need to greatly cut carbon emissions and limit deforestation and accept that the human appetite for animal protein cannot simply be ignored.

To that end, I believe that we have lost our way on poultry. Chicken is both undersung as a protein with a relatively small carbon footprint and overeaten in its blandest forms, the dreaded boneless breast or sauce-vehicle wing.

By all means, cut out beef, lamb, and the like. Cut down on cheese and dairy, too. Instead, along with your plants, grains, and legumes, eat chicken. But maybe—almost certainly—less of it.

An absolutist approach to climate-related dietary advice simply has not worked. A widely cited 2014 survey by the animal-advocacy organization Faunalytics reported that 84 percent of vegans and vegetarians go back to eating meat, most after less than one year. Some found plant-based protein unsatisfactory or boring; others felt socially isolated by eschewing meat. Some simply missed the taste of animal flesh. And Gallup polls have found that the percentage of Americans who are vegetarian or vegan has barely budged in a decade.

But even the jump from vegan to vegetarian can vault the emissions associated with what you eat much higher. The gravest carbon sins of the American diet are tied to raising ruminant animals, which include cows, goats, lambs, and buffalo. Those species produce climate-warming methane and also require a huge amount of land to graze on, spurring further deforestation in crucial carbon sinks such as the Amazon. That’s why it’s widely acknowledged that no climate-conscious diet includes much—or any, really—beef.

But dairy, which is produced by ruminants, can also be a high-footprint food. Cheese has a higher environmental footprint than pork, poultry, or fish. As dairy products go, yogurt is lighter on the planet than most other animal products—although less so the Greek variety, because it requires roughly three times as much milk to make. Replacing all meat and poultry with dairy and eggs, as tends to be the case in Western vegetarian diets, can produce more carbon emissions than a largely plant-based diet that includes poultry, Raychel Santo, a food-and-climate-research associate at the World Resources Institute, told me. In 2019, the World Resources Institute released a study that found that the emissions reductions from replacing large portions of ruminant meat with legumes were very nearly the same as those from replacing it with poultry or even pork.

“It’s not to say plant-based diets aren’t climate friendly, because they are. But just eliminating meat and increasing cheese is not going to be beneficial for climate reasons,” Santo said. “You have fewer of the lower-emissions animal foods to bring the footprint down.”

Americans do not exactly need to be told to eat chicken. The shift to poultry is already well under way in American diets, thanks to years of warnings about cholesterol and saturated fat in red meat more than to any widespread concerns about methane. We consume an astonishing quantity of bird—nearly 100 pounds per person per year. It is filler food, inhaled at a bar in the commercial breaks between plays, scattered onto a Caesar salad in a plastic clamshell, deep-fried in the grimmest gas-station sandwich you’ve ever known.

Right now, poultry is less a replacement for red meat than an overindulged consolation prize. (And we still need to eat less beef.) We gorge on chicken constantly, in the forms most distanced from its existence as an animal, but we don’t seem to appreciate it very much.

And the appeal of chicken from a climate perspective doesn’t counteract the other wrongs of its cultivation. Commercial poultry farms, many of which are in low-income communities of color, are notorious for producing air and water pollution that sicken their neighbors. Farmed chickens are an affront to animal welfare, artificially plumped and crammed into cages. No one could say that the way things are constitutes an environmental solution.

Brian Kateman, a co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, is an animal-welfare advocate who has embraced a somewhat cynical approach to eating them, if you ask the meat-is-murder crowd. (He told me that picketers outside a conference where he spoke held up a sign that said Brian Kateman speaking at an animal welfare conference is like Donald Trump speaking at a women’s rights rally.) Kateman’s position is that rates of meat consumption are pretty much as bad as they’ve ever been, and getting worse. Demanding absolute abstinence from animal products is not working to change that.

“We have to look at the state of things and how bad they are, and we have to fight for an incrementally more positive world, rather than getting caught up in our ideals because they’re so divorced from reality,” he told me matter-of-factly. He suggested, as an example, the goal of reducing the number of animals raised for food by 1 percent. “An idealist would say: ‘One percent! That’s so little.’ My response is ‘Very likely it is going to increase. So I’d be really happy with a 1 percent reduction instead.’”

One popular argument for reducing consumption rests on the power of humane farming practices to push us toward a more climate-conscious way of eating. Giving animals a higher quality of life costs more, which drives up the price of meat, which could result in people buying less of it. By all means, buy humanely raised poultry where and if you can. But these operations constitute a tiny minority of chicken farms; humanely raised meat is many years from being widely accessible.

In the meantime, the best way to show respect for animals that have died to feed us is to make the very most of their meat.

A major reason chicken became so overconsumed appears to be the convenience of boneless, skinless breasts. They are the most popular form of poultry because of their ostensible ease to cook and inoffensiveness as a piece of flesh—when, really, they are the hardest part of a chicken to coax flavor from. But this cultural preference means that the average American household is failing to maximize what it gets out of each chicken. Or, as the writer Sophia Hampton put it in an essay for Bon Appétit: “What we are left with is an unquenchable demand for stripped chicken boob and piles of that unwanted everything else.”

And that “unwanted everything else”—the bones, the cartilage, the skin—“those things have so much flavor in them!” Ali Slagle, a cookbook author, told me. They are what gives chicken the power to add the “savoriness, unctuousness, and fat” that we crave in meat, she said, to all the vegetables, beans, and grains we’re supposed to be eating. The skin of chicken is a more delicious source of fat, in my humble opinion, than any other animal’s—whether it’s rendered to make chicken schmaltz or crisped as a very decadent crouton on a green salad.

Ideally, a chicken-inclusive climate-friendly diet would involve eating less chicken than the average American does now, and using it more strategically, to flavor and embellish other dishes. The food writer and editor David Tamarkin told me that he likes to think of climate-conscious eating as additive of low-footprint foods instead of subtractive of high-footprint ones: more pulses such as lentils and chickpeas, more cover crops such as rye and buckwheat, and more vegetables of all kinds. The best parts of a chicken can make all of them more satisfying, more flavorful.

“I’m never thinking of chicken as the main course,” he said. “I’m thinking of it as braising chicken legs in a white-bean stew, where pound for pound there’s more beans than chicken; soup where there’s always more vegetables and grains than chicken, but it’s getting all its flavor from stock and bones and everything; roasting chicken on a sheet tray with lots of vegetables.”

A popular refrain in certain environmental and animal-welfare circles goes something like: If you eat meat, you should be willing to kill the animal yourself. I will not tell you you have to start butchering your own chickens, because I don’t think many chicken farms would let you come over and do that, and because—like Kateman—I believe in incremental change. The jump from buying boneless cutlets at Shop ’N Save to plucking feathers from a headless bird is too much of an ask.

Buying a whole chicken, cutting it into pieces and wrestling with the bones, finding ways to really get the most out of every part—that’s enough! It is the antidote to mindless consumption. And while thoughtfulness is not the only requirement of a climate-conscious diet, it is a necessary condition for one.

This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by HHMI’s Science and Educational Media Group.


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