To save the Earth, should we be shipping meat halfway around it?

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First Light wagyu at Wild Standard.
5280 Productions

Sustainable does not always equal local.

That’s the next-level thinking going on at eateries across the country which are shipping in food, mostly meat, from far-away areas where that meat can be raised without contributing excess greenhouse gases to our already burning planet.

Now, some Boulder County restaurants are getting into the action. Bradford Heap, of SALT and Wild Standard, is serving First Light Wagyu on his menu, beef raised in New Zealand, shipped overseas to Colorado, defrosted (sometimes), cooked and served.

The latest trend in sustainability is “food miles” — the distance it takes to get a piece of food from the producer to the plate. Rich Pirog, a researcher at Iowa State University, found that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles (Boulder County to Pittsburgh), and that processed foods, like strawberry yogurt, for instance, travel even farther.

So how can increasing food miles make our food system more sustainable? It’s hard to believe, even for the early adopters.

“At first glance I thought I’m not going to buy beef from New Zealand, that’s not sustainability,” Heap says. “And that’s a simplistic way of looking at a global problem. Now with global warming, you start looking a little closer and food miles is absolutely an oversimplification.”

There’s data to back it up. Fruits and vegetables may still be best sourced locally, but energy- and resource-intensive food like beef and lamb may be more Earth-friendly if they’re raised in areas where the animals can feed on grass in pasture, regardless of the energy needed to ship them around the globe.

“Food miles are a good measure of how far food has traveled. But they’re not a very good measure of the food’s environmental impact,” Pirog told the sustainable food group Worldwatch Institute.

The vast majority of U.S. beef is raised on factory farms that use a ton of water and don’t help sequester carbon, and fed crops that are grown on pesticide-laden land

“The way we raise beef here, there’s a lot of methane, pesticides, water, the amount of tractor and petrochemicals you have to use to harvest that grain and move it around, these are all inputs. The inputs in New Zealand are, you have some land, it’s lush green, and that’s the input… it’s a God-given commodity. From my perspective if it’s not used, it would die and create carbon,” Heap says, adding, “but I’m not an authority on this,” and later in our conversation, “I couldn’t figure out how to get the facts on how much energy is used on a big cargo ship, there’s another input.”

There’s a bunch of anecdotal evidence to calculate the emissions involved in shipping beef from New Zealand, but for reference, a 2015 study found that the transportation of frozen Australian beef around the world contributed to less than 5 percent of the total emissions involved in raising that beef. Another study that tracked emissions involved in selling New Zealand lamb to the United Kingdom found that, similarly, only 5 percent of the total emissions came from the actual transportation.

New Zealand thinks they’re onto something, at least. In March, the trade group Beef + Lamb New Zealand launched an international campaign to get food-sellers to use their meat, the aforementioned First Light Wagyu and the New Zealand Spring Lamb. 

(Warning: ad speak ahead):

“New Zealand farms provide a stress-free place for the animals to live; a calm existence where they can roam and graze freely over lush green hills and pastures in vast, wide open spaces. The result is a lean, flavorful meat that tastes just as nature intended,” the group recently claimed.

No doubt, New Zealand beef and lamb is heralded for its quality and cost, and it makes sense: natural pastures lead to healthier animals, which leads to a better yield, better meat and lower costs. Heap says the breed of cattle, in particular, matters too: Wagyu raised in New Zealand’s rolling pastures is a fit, while Angus and Hereford breeds raised in the U.S., even if they’re grass-fed, pack on a lot of fat, multiplying the amount of grass that needs to be used for the animals, which is problematic in water-restricted areas like the West. 

Ultimately, though, the best way to ensure the beef and lamb you’re eating isn’t contributing to the demise of the Earth is to just eat less of it. Everyone, seemingly, agrees on that point.

Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie-Mellon University culled data and concluded that, “No matter how it is measured, on average red meat is more GHG-intensive than all other forms of food.”

Heap agrees: “I don’t think beef itself is a sustainable product necessarily compared to pork and chicken and their inputs; they’re omnivores, they’ll eat scraps.”

Heap adds that his restaurants serve local lamb and pork, but that making it affordable while still making money to keep the restaurants in business is a “challenge.” 

“It’s going to be appetites that drive the conversation,” Heap says. “If people vote with their credit cards for big steaks, I think [First Light Wagyu] is an option that’s far more sustainable than corn-finished Wagyu or Choice beef. I personally would never consume that, it’s not meat to me. Even if it’s treated well, if it’s fed glyphosate-soaked corn, I’m not supporting Monsanto. I’ll go to my grave being proud of that.”

To his credit, Heap has made about half his menu at SALT plant-based, but, he adds, everyone has to make this decision on their own. He’s sharing the news of New Zealand beef and hosting tastings with restaurateurs around Boulder County, but that’s as far as he’ll go.

“I think shaming people is not a good place to start with it,” he says. “I do my best to keep my piehole shut.” 

Maybe we all ought to keep our pieholes shut for beef and lamb. But when we do eat it — twice a month for the latter, according to the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans — maybe we only do it for well-raised products, from New Zealand or Boulder County.