THE BLOG
04/22/2015 09:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Earth Day: Eating Bean Burgers Beats Measuring Cheeseburgers

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Even though we are in "decade zero" of the need to change our behavior or cook the planet, the official Earth Day site is surprisingly toothless in suggesting actions we need to take. As far as food goes, it urges us to go meatless on Mondays, but encourages environment-damaging dairy and eggs even then. The Earth Day site offers a classroom plan for 8th grade teachers that has students calculate the environmental impact of eating 100 cheeseburgers a year. The students don't compare cheeseburgers to bean burgers (although I do below). Worse, they are told to keep eating beef burgers! The teacher's guide says:

Remember to discuss with students that this activity is not meant to make them stop eating hamburgers. Instead, it's meant to draw attention to how choices we make everyday impact the environment.


Attention to our impact is not enough: flip the paradigm

For that matter, other steps the Earth Day site suggests are trivial. Reduce junk mail? But our approach to eating has a big effect. The report from the United Nations, Livestock's Long Shadow, says 18 percent of our greenhouse gases come from raising animals for food. Over 8 percent of the water we use also goes to raising animals. Who do you think eats all that alfalfa that's sucking up the water in California?

I am currently reading The Sixth Extinction and am more convinced than ever that we need to change our abuse of the planet dramatically right now. Meatless Monday was a great start, but it's time to flip the paradigm. Eat meat and other animal products only one day a week or better yet not at all.

According the Environmental Working Group's Meat-Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health:

If you eat one less burger a week, it's like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time. If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it's like taking your car off the road for five weeks - or reducing everyone's daily showers by 3 minutes.

In a memorable graphic, the Meat-Eater's Guide shows the carbon footprint of 4 ounces of various foods in terms of equivalent miles driven:
  • 0.2 miles for beans
  • 0.5 miles for fruits and vegetables
  • 2.8 miles for cheese
  • 6.7 miles for beef

That means 33 four-ounce servings of beans have the same mileage as 1 four-ounce serving of beef!

Carbon footprint: 1 cheeseburger = 2.75 bean burgers

When I did the suggested classroom exercise and then extrapolated the carbon footprint of a bean burger using the EWG's figures above, I found that a cheeseburger has about 2.75 times the carbon footprint of a bean burger. That's with the same bread, lettuce, pickles, and even the freeze-dried onions from the classroom plan. I'd use local spring onions, lettuce, and pickles, which would cut the energy used in transportation and storage further. Homemade bean burgers are delicious and easy to make, too.

My Low-Fat Bean Burgers for Earth Day and Every Day
These bean burgers satisfy when you want something tasty on a bun to go with the ketchup, mustard, and onions. Top them with salsa and guacamole for a Tex-Mex twist. You can also crumble the burgers to use in tacos or on pizza.

Because fat-free bean burgers freeze and reheat well, you can make a batch or two on a cooler day to enjoy when it's too hot to move or when you have company who prefers a lean, green option. These bean burgers are vegan, gluten free, and high in fiber as well as being free of added fat and cholesterol. I minimize the packaging and cost by cooking my own dried beans. If you use canned beans, rinse them well.

Ingredients for Low-Fat Bean Burgers
  • 4 cups cooked and drained pinto beans, black beans, or Anasazi beans
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 bunch spring onions (100 grams or 1 cup chopped)
  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (80 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon ground flax seed (7 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon bean broth or water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (7 grams)
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground chipotle
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Get the full directions and more pictures on my Cook for Good website. You'll also find many other organic vegan recipes that make it easy to eat like it's Earth Day every day.