Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Most Peaceful Burrito

GOOD, one of my favorite magazines, blogged a few days ago that Chipotle has announced plans to double the use of local produce in their restaurants.  As chains go, Chipotle is already notoriously good at using local-ish food (grown within a 300-mile radius of the restaurant) farmed in a reasonably sustainable way.  To double that would certainly be a great achievement; it will probably mean more business for lots of smaller farmers across the country and nobody can argue that food isn't better if it travels a mere 150 miles instead of the average 1500.  But how much better is it?

I found myself wondering how much of a difference this increase in locally sourced ingredients would realistically make to the environment.  Would it be more helpful if Chipotle spent money promoting their vegetarian menu items over those with meat?  Or would it be a better use of their time to find farms that can supply grass-fed, pasture-raised beef?  I did a bit of research to try to answer this question.  I am by no means claiming that my answer is comprehensive or even correct, and I leave that judgment up to the reader.

Transporting food across the country or across the world requires fuel.  Fuel generally requires oil and emits greenhouse gasses, and we've already learned that food on the average plate has traveled 1500 miles to get there. Buying local must be the best food-related thing we can do to help the environment - right?  According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, summarized here, transportation only accounts for about 11% of the environmental impact of food.  Most of the effects on the environment actually come from growing and producing food, and of course different types of food take different amounts of energy to produce.  Meat takes more than vegetables, and it turns out red meat requires the most - 150% more energy than chicken.  Perhaps we should all be vegetarians...

Vegetables require less water [than cows] and you can get more pounds of rice than beef per acre of land.  They are delicious and good for you and you should absolutely eat a lot of them, but watch out for how they were grown.  Vegetables can attract insects and diseases, which are often treated with pesticides that eventually run off into our land and water.

Even worse, many vegetables are genetically modified so they are resistant to the pesticides which kill pesky bugs and weeds.  Nobody really knows what eating all of this GMO food may do to us or our planet in the long run, and there's not a whole lot we can do about it.  For example, Roundup-ready soybeans (modified by Monsanto, the company that makes Roundup) accounted for 80-90% of soybean plants in the U.S. and GMO food is not required to be identified on food labels.

Let's revisit our friend the cow.

Much like vegetables, how bad an animal is for the environment has a lot to do with how it was raised and cared for.  Most cows are "traditionally raised", which means they are cooped up in pens and fed corn and antibiotics - corn because it makes them grow faster and antibiotics because corn wreaks infectious havoc on their stomachs.  The arguments for raising cows this way are mostly monetary.  They are quicker to get to slaughter size so farmers have a faster turnaround time per animal which equals more profit.  From an environmental perspective, corn-fed cows produce less methane since corn is easier to digest than grass.  Thank goodness the story doesn't end with grass-fed cows being too gassy for the planet.

The true carbon footprint of grass-fed cows that are allowed to roam around many acres of land is actually negative.  As cows graze, leave manure, and move on to other fields, the nutrients they leave behind get stomped into and absorbed by the soil leaving it healthier than it was before they got there.  Healthy soil holds in carbon rather than sending it out into the atmosphere, offsetting the methane the cows released.  Producing food for these "mooovers" costs nothing more than a few sunny days.  No antibiotics need to be introduced because cows were created to eat grass.

The Most Peaceful Burrito
Back to the question at hand, which I've now pretty much forgotten.  Chipotle should absolutely continue to increase the amount of food it brings in from sources local to each restaurant.  It should also focus on getting more organically grown vegetables and it should work really, really hard to find suppliers of pasture-raised, grass-fed beef. Their website indicates they are always looking to improve in both of these areas, which is great news and all the more reason to chow down on their burritos!


  1. Their burritos are huge! I wish more places focused on higher quality ingredients and more reasonable portions...

    Though I'm sure most guys would disagree..

    So you're saying, I should be very wary of where my edamame comes from? :( :( my favorite snack!

  2. Ah that's a great point about the portion control! I always get the burrito bowl, and 99% of the time it's when I am STARVING and I get a vegetarian one so I don't worry about the calories QUITE as much. Hehe. But yeah, I think as chains go, they do a decent job of getting as many quality ingredients as they can... always room for improvement though.

    Yeah it's crazy that somebody would mess with soybeans!! Nobody really says whether genetically modified stuff is good or bad as far as I can tell but it seems sketchy to me. I'm sure your edamame snacks are okay (moderation) but I wouldn't eat a tofu burger with a tall glass of soy milk and side of edamame for dinner or anything. :-)


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