San Francisco’s strong environmental ethos is fueling the growth of Bay Area food startups creating meat alternatives from plant proteins. (Courtesy photo)

Is plant-based food always the best choice?

Curing a broken food system that’s wreaked such havoc is complicated.

This Valentine’s Day, instead of chocolate-covered strawberries, I received a meat-free “bacon”-gram. Typically, I shy away from samples and gifts to reduce unnecessary consumption. But it was hard to pass up this treat made from a high-protein fungus (koji).

San Francisco’s strong environmental ethos is fueling the growth of Bay Area food startups creating meat alternatives from plant proteins. Alarmed about climate change, people are demanding substitutes for beef, dog food and bacon. This is because the production of livestock, especially in industrial factory farms, is associated with wide-ranging environmental impacts. And ruminant livestock, such as cows, burp significant greenhouse gases.

But curing a broken food system that’s wreaked such havoc is complicated. Livestock production, even from cows, can have environmental benefits. And not every plant-based food is great for the planet. While koji bacon may be more sustainable than pork bacon and chocolate-dipped strawberries, San Franciscans should remain mindful before getting too hungry for processed, plant-based alternatives.

With their restaurants Mission Chinese Food, Commonwealth and The Perennial, San Francisco chef Anthony Myint and his partner Karen Leibowitz have elevated the conversation around the environmental benefits of livestock production — not just the impacts. Climate Beneficial Beef served at the now-closed Perennial, for example, was sourced from a ranch using compost and grazing methods to turn bad atmospheric carbon into healthy soil carbon.

Now, Myint and Leibowitz’s nonprofit, ZeroFoodprint, is managing a new program called Restore California. Through the program, San Franciscans will have the option on their restaurant bills to make their meal climate friendly. Funds collected will go to farmers who utilize their land to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

“Scientists have recently determined that, at scale, carbon farming would lower global temperatures,” Myint told me. “Restore California is providing a simple funding mechanism that allows the average person to actively vote with their dollar and invest in change on farmland.”

While Myint and Leibowitz are raising awareness about the possibilities of food production, other researchers are exposing the impacts with certain plant-based ingredients.

Our World in Data, a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Oxford and the nonprofit Global Change Data Lab, recently published a list of individual food products with the most greenhouse gas emissions across the supply chain. It may surprise some that chocolate and coffee are listed right behind beef, lamb and cheese. This is because growing and supplying chocolate and coffee can shrink rainforests and emit significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Less surprising is that transporting highly-perishable foods by air also leads to high emissions. According to the United Kingdom-based researchers, some fruit and vegetables can fall into this category, including berries and asparagus purchased off season.

“A general rule is to avoid foods that have a short shelf-life and have traveled a long way (many labels have the country of ‘origin’ which helps with this),” writes one of the authors, Hannah Ritchie. “This is especially true for foods where there is a strong emphasis on ‘freshness’: for these products, transport speed is a priority.”

If all of this information makes food choices seem complicated, that’s because they are. Adding processed alternatives to the equation can confuse things even more. While koji bacon is likely better than regular bacon from factory farms and chocolate-dipped strawberries, it’s difficult to make a general comparison between one company’s product and the nuanced benefits and impacts of a diverse number of food producers and suppliers.

Instead of gravitating to processed products, it’s best to be careful of foods that come from burping livestock (beef and lamb), lead to deforestation (chocolate and coffee) and are air freighted from far away. If the taste and ease of meat alternatives encourages more consumers to move away from these typically high-impact foods, there may be more value to their existence on the market. The Impossible Burger, for example, is now even sold at Burger King.

Sadly, however, my koji-bacon lacked the flavorful smell and taste of regular bacon. I think I’ll go back to celebrating Valentine’s Day by hugging trees.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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