Why Eating the Whole Thing Is Good for the Planet
In 1916, the crew of Antarctic explorers were in a perilous situation. Five months earlier, they had managed to escape their ship, the Endurance, as it slowly sank beneath the treacherous pack-ice of the Weddell Sea. After a perilous 850-mile trip in three boats through icy waters, they had just reached the inhospitable outcrop of Elephant Island in April.
The starving, exhausted group initially survived on a diet of seal, penguin, and seabird. As food sources disappeared, old, discarded bones, and rotting carcasses were dug up and turned into stew. Still, this was not enough to sustain the malnourished men. They saw they were surrounded by fresh shellfish and iron-rich seaweed, and began to eat these unthinkable things. Their leader Sir Ernest Shackleton later dryly observed: “This did not agree with some of the party.”
The experience of the starving shipwrecked sailors—who all escaped the ordeal—says two things about modern human attitudes toward food. First, even those faced with starvation can be picky eaters, but, more importantly, eating concepts that have been around for decades may be standing in the way of optimal human and environmental health.
It was at a future time of great peril, World War II, that the British public was forced to eat parts of animals normally thrown away. Vast quantities of prime cuts of beef and pork were shipped to American troops serving overseas while the government encouraged citizens to eat organ meat on the homefront as a “patriotic duty.”
However, patriotism alone was not enough to persuade people to eat certain foods—heart, liver, and tripe—considered to be particularly unappetizing and suitable only for those who could afford little else. Anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist Kurt Lewin encouraged butchers to reframe organ meat as “variety meat,” something to be eaten once a week as a tasty and nutritious change to the normal diet. The strategy worked until the war was over, and the public gladly returned to their familiar steaks, chops, and ribs.
Yet two centuries before, author Elizabeth Raffald’s best-selling cookbook had recipes for turtle fins, goose giblet stew, and pig’s feet— “let the feet boil until they are pretty tender”—and for a celebratory meal, grilled calf’s head with brain cakes.
Meat Production Increases
These beautifully crafted nose-to-tail dishes became unpopular in part because of the growing abundance of convenient, affordable alternatives. Between the publication of Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper in the mid-1700s and Shackleton’s shipwrecked sailors in the early 1900s, the production of meat increased twelve-fold in the United States due to the agricultural revolution. New machinery and farming techniques, coupled with better transportation and new western lands for grazing livestock, brought plentiful, cheap meat to the market. And this farming revolution spread across the developed world to Europe and beyond.
In the last fifty years, total global meat production has tripled. In 2018 alone, 340 million tons of meat was produced, and this figure continues to rise with the lion’s share of growth occurring in Asia. A twenty-six-story skyscraper pork farm began production this year in Ezhou, China, with the capacity to slaughter over one million pigs annually.
As has been well-documented, meat production is a major producer of global greenhouse gases. Over 14% of the world’s yearly total comes from the industry as rearing animals causes the release of methane, a greenhouse gas thirty-four times more potent over a century than CO2.
Cut Back or Eat it All?
In the unlikely event of everyone rationing their meat to cut back on carbon, the second-best option might be returning to 18th century eating habits in which almost all parts of an animal are consumed. A 2018 study on German meat consumption—which is twice the global average—by Professor Gang Liu, a researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, found that if people ate more of an animal—50% extra organ meat from that which is normally discarded—then emissions from Germany’s meat production would fall by 14%. It’s not hard to imagine the impact if this change were replicated worldwide.
It is not only meat lovers who discard what is good to eat. Whether it be tops (carrot), blossoms (squash) or leaves (beans), vegetable lovers do the same. Sweet potatoes, for instance, might be delicious, nutritious, and versatile, but their leaves never make it to grocery store shelves. Yet these greens are even more nutritious, containing the macronutrients of carbohydrate, protein, and fiber, and can be easily served raw in a salad or cooked in a dish as a replacement for spinach. While consumers in Japan, Taiwan, and many parts of Africa enjoy these leaves, they have had minimum usage in the Western diet.
It is Mostly About Culture
To encourage people to expand their palates, several barriers may have to be overcome, including those that have been ingrained through culture and upbringing. Consumer psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society, Paul Buckley, explains that people learn what is unappealing from a very young age, and this first impression is hard to shift: “A small child will see their parent wrinkling their face in disgust and have a negative association with that food.”
“Trying to get people to accept food that is different is hard work,” he adds.
Furthermore, acquiring disdain for certain foods can be based on cultural norms. Buckley remembers meeting Chinese people who found the concept of a Western staple—cheese—repulsive, describing it as “rotten milk.” And these cultural barriers can be very local: When Buckley was in Mexico, he observed people eating iguana. This, he learned, was considered very distasteful in other parts of the country—where snake was eaten. “The cultural factor is the main driving force,” he said.
Examples of eating more of what nature provides are common worldwide. Scottish culture celebrates the national dish of haggis, which consists of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs cooked in the large intestine of a cow. Many Cambodians enjoy a meal of tarantula. When seasoned with sugar and salt and deep-fried, these spiders are a delicacy when in season, with individual street vendors selling up to a hundred per day. Seattle-based chef David Gordon George—who likes to cook the spiders in a tempura batter with a paprika seasoning—finds that their thinner skins make for a chewier delicacy compared to other insects.
From Russia to Sri Lanka, the fish eyeball is a delicacy to be fought over at the family dinner table. Consuming them is said to stimulate brain cells and stave off memory loss, courtesy of a pair of unsaturated fatty acids, DHA and EPA. The windows to the fish’s soul are used by many cultures to flavor stocks, stews, and soups for a rich, umami taste.
It was a diet of nose-to-tail fish, turtle’s blood, and jelly fish that kept modern-day Ecuadorean castaway José Salvador Alvarenga alive for more than thirteen months at sea.
Perhaps if everyone were to capture their inner castaway, diners worldwide might be able to help save the planet—as well as improve their health—by eating a greater portion of their meats, fruits, and vegetables—bones (broth) and all.
*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.
Gordon Cairns interviewed Paul Buckley.