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Jan Lee headshot

Want to Erase Carbon Emissions? Eat Beans, Say Researchers

By Jan Lee

Beans often get a bad rap. More formally known as legumes, they’re often touted as the unsociable ingredient in a good beef stew or a quick meal. They go well in burritos and are irreplaceable along side a hearty dish of huevos rancheros.

But face it: Only vegetarians would dare shove beef and chicken aside in favor of beans.

Still, that’s just what a group of researchers are proposing: Lighten up on the beef and lather on the legumes

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the diet advice. Legumes may be high in protein and low in fat, great for the heart, and easy on the sugars, but a steak dinner they will not make. They’re extremely uncooperative on the summer barbecue grill, and their byproduct can kill a romantic moment in a gasp.

In this case, though, it isn’t human health that scientists are advocating for, but the health of Mother Nature.

The findings, published in the scientific journal Climate Change this week, suggest that Americans could cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly by giving up the cow and opting for a plant. The U.S. could meet 50 to 75 percent of its 2020 GHG targets fairly quickly by switching to legumes, the research team spanning four universities attests.

The reason hasn’t as much to do with what we eat but what it takes to put that steak or pot roast on the table.

The researchers led by Helen Harwatt and Joan Sabaté of California's Loma Linda University argue that raising cows for food is an inefficient use of land: Millions of acres are used not only to rear cattle, but also to cultivate grains for feed.

That issue came home to roost a few years ago when drought conditions made it close to impossible for California ranchers to supply local feed. But the acreage required for feed production creates the biggest argument for switching toward a plant-based diet, argued Helen Harwatt of Loma Linda University.

Harwatt estimated that more than 40 percent of American cropland is given over to raising feed for the animals. By dropping beef from the menu, that land could be cultivated for heart-healthy produce and legumes.

This shift in diet would also cut down on the staggering number of cattle needed for the beef industry, potentially opening up yet more land for cultivation.

And not that the federal government would ever want to ditch the headache of enforcing automobile emissions standards, but the results of moving to a bean-based diet would make it almost unnecessary.

“The nation could achieve more than half of its GHG reduction goals without imposing any new standards on automobiles or manufacturing,” Joan Sabaté, executive director of the Center for Nutrition, Healthy Lifestyle and Disease Prevention at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health, told Science Daily.

The question, though, is whether Americans could really scrap their T-bone steaks and London broil for legumes. Would they be content with more innovative plant sources like burgers made with pea protein and deserts featuring vegan gelatin?

The vote is still out. But Harwatt says the fact that at least 30 percent of Americans are now purchasing meat lookalikes (what she calls “meat analogues”) is a very positive sign for the environment.

"It looks like we'll need to do this,” Harwatt told Science Daily. “The scale of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed doesn't allow us the luxury of 'business as usual' eating patterns.”

Get your recipe books out.

Image credit: Flickr/David Stanley

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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