Tofu Footprint

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.   So about a year ago Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that we forgo meat one day a week to do our part.   There may be health benefits beyond the environment that would make this a smooth move.  A National Cancer Institute Study found that the more than half a million people  who ate 4 ounces of red meat a day — the size of a small hamburger — were more likely to die over the next 10 years, mostly from heart disease and cancer. But I am reminded again that we can’t just glom onto research and guidelines that fit nicely into our personal paradigm.  There’s always another side to the story.

An article in Slate’s online magazine entitled How Green is Tofu? caught me by surprise.  It turns out that while not as obviously detrimental to the eco-system as confined cow operations, benign, bland tofu can have a tofu_stage5negative environmental impact too.  Some tofu-makers import their beans. That costs energy.  Like any processed food, it requires work to make beans into tofu. According to the Slate article, “Soybeans are soaked in large tanks and ground into a slurry that then gets heated, filtered, and coagulated into slabs before being chopped up, packaged, and pasteurized.” All of these steps require energy that increase tofu’s carbon footprint.  Even more energy is expended if the product is a soy analog.  In a study done in the Netherlands, they compared the carbon dioxide output of producing various soy analogs and tofu to chicken and fish.  Turns out, tofu scored only a little less than chicken and higher than some seafood.  Wow.

In a recent NY Times Op-Ed column titled The Carnivore’s Dilemma writer Nicolette Hahn Niman spells out more facts.  Avoiding soy from deforested croplands may be more difficult: as the Organic Consumers Association notes, Brazilian soy is common (and unlabeled) in tofu and soymilk sold in American supermarkets.  While successfully making the case for animal protein from traditional farms, she points out that “None of us, whether we are vegan or omnivore, can entirely avoid foods that play a role in global warming. Singling out meat is misleading and unhelpful, especially since few people are likely to entirely abandon animal-based foods..”  She suggests that all eaters can lower their global warming contribution by following these simple rules: avoid processed foods and those from industrialized farms; reduce food waste; and buy local and in season.

So where and how do we meet our protein needs in a responsible and healthful way?  I continue to believe that replacing some of the bulk of meat and grain  we eat with more fruits and vegetables is essential given our proclivity to sit more than we walk.  And it seems like doing our best to buy protein products from local ranchers or local tofu makers supports everyone’s checkbook and heartbeat.  What are your thoughts?

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