Eli’s, the gourmet food market on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, last month took a radical step on behalf of the environment: it added an energy surcharge of 1.8 percent to people’s grocery bills. Customers predictably weren’t happy, and the unpopular surcharge was soon suspended. The store’s owner, Eli Zabar, insisted he was trying to make a statement: the energy cost of running a food business was much higher than any other type of business. He could have simply raised food prices, but that wouldn’t have done anything to make people aware of all the energy needed to run a supermarket: lighting, electricity for the frozen goods, meat and dairy departments, and so on.
“It takes a lot of energy to roast coffee,” Zabar is quoted as saying in a New York Times article.
So, what exactly was Zabar trying to say? That we shouldn’t shop at supermarkets or gourmet food stores? Although it’s more energy efficient to buy food direct from farmers whenever we can, I don’t think that was Zabar’s point. He is a merchant after all. He was simply drawing attention to all the ways in which we deplete our natural resources and suck energy out of the planet, without even knowing it.
Take the production of meat, which is super high-energy intensive. According to a statistic cited in a New York Times article by Mark Bittman, the production of 2.2 pounds of beef burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.
How is it, though, that cows consume energy? Don’t they eat grass? Well, the lucky ones do. Most cows – the ones raised on industrial farms – are fed great quantities of corn and other grains, which rely on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides – all of which use massive amounts of fossil fuels to produce. Processing and transporting the animals also consume a tremendous amount of energy.
Bittman points out that it takes two to five times more grain to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption.
So we’d be better off – both ourselves and the environment – if we ate less meat and more grains and vegetables. In our meat-eating culture, it’s not so easy to do.
Not too long ago, I went to Todaro’s, a well-loved neighborhood food store in Manhattan, to buy a small, no-bigger-than-quarter-pound steak, but all they had were hunky one-pound cuts of beef. The sales clerk said they’d never be able to sell itsy bitsy quarter-pound steaks like the one I wanted. I settled for the smallest steak there – a sirloin steak just a little over three-quarters of a pound. I took it home and cut it into three equal parts, which I then froze.
Four ounces of meat, a quarter pound, is what the USDA recommends consumers eat a day. Americans eat twice that much – eight ounces, a half a pound – about twice the global average.
It’s hard to reduce our meat intake when we live in a fervent meat culture, but we can try.
We can buy that steak if we have to (or can’t resist), but we can cut it, freeze it, and make it last. We can “mini-size” our steaks and chops when the rest of the nation is super-sizing.
Zabar made a statement. Now it’s our turn to act.