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Editorial: Guilt — It’s What’s for Dinner

Several recent articles about food could inspire a reworking of a famous ad campaign that once promoted a nice, juicy steak. Given heaping servings of doubt about the ethics of the American way of eating, it has come to this: Guilt — it’s what’s for dinner.

At least that is how one might feel after reading a steady diet of disconcerting pieces in these pages. It began July 8, with a column from the PETA Foundation that asserted that “fish are smart, sentient animals with a capacity for suffering.”

Dismiss that if you wish, but on July 22, a column by Paul Greenberg, author of American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood, reported that 90 percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. comes from abroad, sometimes produced in dirty fish farms and processed by criminally exploited workers. Meanwhile, a third of what American fisheries catch is sold to foreigners. That scale of trade leads to Greenberg’s startling assertion: “The average distance imported seafood travels to reach U.S. plates is a whopping 5,475 miles.” As the crow flies from West Lebanon, that’s very close to Cairo, making it hard to dismiss the carbon implications of the catch of the day.

That same day, The Associated Press reported on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about pollution from the production of protein from animal sources. Where’s the beef? You might not want to ask. According to the study, “Compared with the other animal proteins, beef produces five times more heat-trapping gases per calorie, puts out six times as much water-polluting nitrogen, takes 11 times more water for irrigation, and uses 28 times the land.” The beef industry, not surprisingly, called the study “a gross oversimplification,’’ although AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein described it “as one of the most comprehensive pieces of research quantifying and comparing the U.S. environmental costs of different meats and other animal proteins.”

Cows burp up major amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is said to be dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Beef production reportedly uses more plant food, produces more nitrogen, and uses much more water and land than raising other animals for meat. “Whenever possible, try to replace beef with other sources of protein from animal sources,’’ said the lead author of the study, Gidon Eshel, an environmental physics professor at Bard College in New York.

But some say more change is required. On Wednesday, a Washington Post story described how chef and author Dan Barber is “questioning the very thesis of the farm-to-table movement.” In a nutshell, he questions whether it’s enough to buy food locally. He suggests that ethical consumers should select foods that are better for the soil, such as lentils, beans and chickpeas. “Tomatoes, asparagus, peas and grass-fed steaks” don’t make the cut, even if they are produced by the farmer down the road.

Given that Upper Valley shoppers are also confronting the issue of where best to shop, at markets owned by corporations or at local, perhaps imperfect, co-ops, menu planning is becoming awfully complicated.

So, how to prepare a tasty meal in 30 minutes or less that the family will love, and won’t require debate about its moral justification? Or, what would an ethicist eat?