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  • Renee Kashuba

What we eat matters ...

... and not just for ourselves. Our food choices have a profound effect on the environment, the economy, trade, and how others live even far away from us. A recent NPR story argues that there really is no food shortage, despite the default messaging of an upcoming "crisis" in feeding our growing global population. There is, instead, a continuing abundance of food and decreasing prices, overall. Yet, the leagues of underfed and undernourished people continues. What's going on here?

Certainly, as the NPR story attests, hunger and regional shortages are tied to political unrest and oppression. There's also poverty, plain and simple -- and there are some startling trends around poverty in the US as detailed in Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, the wonderful new book from Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

Scientists, however, suggest [paywall for full article] that an overall abundance will continue for the next few decades -- until, of course, climate change threatens to alter all that. And so the issue becomes not how much food we're producing, but what kind and how does that affect the environment, which will in turn affect our future access to plentiful food.

This spring, Vox produced a compelling video that visually displays the impact various crops and livestock have on the environment. Beef is, as you might guess, the worst offender, largely due to grazing requirements to raise those beasts. To be fair, the chart compares resources needed to produce 1 kg of each food studies, and not all foods are alike in nutrition and in mass needed to feel satisfied. Anyone who's eaten a vegan meal will confirm that you need what seems like twice the food to feel full. Nonetheless, the differences are stark. And the impact on the environment in the US is compounded by our excessive consumption, particularly of beef. In fact, US consumption of meat, eggs, and nuts has increased over 1970 levels, along with all food categories except dairy. Interestingly, USDA reports "per capita availability" of meat by kind, but actual consumption is harder to find. Available data show 64.1 pounds of chicken and 54.3 pounds of beef per capita in 2017. Further, consumption of chicken has grown steadily since around 1960, but the consumption of beef remains steady following a sharp decline around the same time chicken consumption began to accelerate, and consumption of pork has remained relatively stable (with periodic fluctuations) since at least 1910.

This consumption is largely driven by the access to cheap meat. In 2016, US Department of Agriculture projected that beef and pork consumption would rebound in the next decade, after dropping in the previous decade. Increased prices, as well as dietary concerns, led to decreased consumption, and reduced meat prices, thanks to cheaper feed, was considered the primary factor influencing the increase. But is this price really reflective of the true costs of consuming such high levels of meat? And what are we really learning about diet? We seem to have a momentary realization around red meat consumption and health around 1970 -- or was that just prices?

At any rate, the trend was quickly reversed, and Americans gave in to their passion for blood. I love a good steak, rare as can be. And I mean, really love it. But 54.3 pounds of beef per year is a lot of meat. A standard portion size for beef is 4 oz, so that's 217.2 servings of beef for each of us each year -- certainly an excess, particularly if we're also going to eat 256.4 servings of chicken each year, and pork and fish on top of that. This is not a good use of our resources. Can we collectively reduce that by 1/4, 1/3, 1/2? I'm not suggesting we avoid it altogether (although many make that argument, and quite compellingly). It seems Americans are not ready for that, and I'm all about meeting folks where they are. Even a minor improvement could help, so let's just start there.

INSTEAD OF This Week's Recipe

As you may know, several times throughout the year, my family fasts from animal products for religious observance. We've learned a few things about making plant-based meals delicious and filling. One of the key challenges is replacing the umami flavor (coined in Japan, this flavor describes the rich, savory taste we most often associate with meat). Without some umami, savory food can taste thin or lacking substance, even watery. I've heard some people describe this as salty. It is not! We already have a flavor called salty. This is a distinct flavor that adds richness and decadence to food. Thankfully, it is found in the plant world! Here are 7 ways to add umami to plant-based meals that we rely on. They also add richness and savory texture to meat-based meals, so use them liberally.

  1. Minced mushrooms, added early in the cooking (works well with soups, stews, and anything with a sauce)

  2. Caramelized mushrooms, especially with nuts or sweet onions

  3. Wine, wine, and more wine, particularly red or flavored wines like Marsala (when in doubt, add some wine or spirits, I say)

  4. Soy sauce, tamari sauce (I always make vegetable soup/stew with this and red wine and it does not taste Asian in any way), and the like (consider miso)

  5. Molasses, which will also adds a nice, dark color

  6. Tomato paste in sautéing (in soups, this doesn't really give you umami, but acid, but a dab added when sautéing with some wine and herbs or spices, it browns nicely and gives a rich sauce)

  7. Play with spices, particularly adding sweet spices (notably allspice and cloves) to savory foods

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