Overall environmental impact is difficult to distill into a number or grade; there are too many moving parts to declare something absolutely good or bad. For example, efficiency is a key to conserving resources and, in many cases, reducing carbon emissions, but efficiency might be achieved in any number of otherwise questionable ways: pesticides, antibiotics, brutal animal treatment, genetically modified crops. The endlessly intertwined nature of nature is part of what makes environmental change so unwieldy and seemingly unapproachable.
A friend of mine named Peter Freed works for Terrapass, a respected San Francisco company that deals in emissions reductions and renewable energy projects.1
I asked Peter if he could help me measure the total environmental impact of a restaurant meal, and his answer was no, he couldn’t—there are just too many moving parts. What he could do was assess the greenhouse gas emissions of a meal and, by proxy, the culpability of restaurants in global warming.
Our starting point was the assumption that restaurant dining is fundamentally bad for the environment—or, more specifically, that restaurant dining is worse than cooking and eating at home. So we’d have to compare the carbon emissions of a restaurant meal to a similar meal prepared at home. Prime Meats in Brooklyn struck me immediately as an apt choice for the former. Much of their menu is doable—if not exactly replicable-—for a home cook: chilled iceberg salad, Caesar salad, roasted beets and carrots, ricotta dumplings, grilled pork chops, pork schnitzel, steak frites, burger. In other words, dinner at Prime Meats is something that you might weigh against staying in and cooking for yourself.
Restaurants in the Prime Meats strata have the most to lose if home cooking does turn out to be an earth-cooling alternative to patronizing neighborhood restaurants.2 But the two chef-proprietors, Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, consented to the study without hesitation.
Not all restaurant menus, however, lend themselves as easily to a showdown with home cooking. I don’t think anyone has ever puzzled over whether to stay in or have dinner at Noma. One might question the value of comparing the carbon emissions of a twenty-three-course tasting menu that counts lichens and insects among its ingredients to that of a weeknight lasagna. But what makes Noma an interesting case study is its reputation. Much of Noma’s allure is tied to the restaurant’s commitment to local Scandinavian ingredients, specifically plants and animals foraged from nearby forests and beaches. Foraging is a buzzword that comes fully loaded with positive connotations. If a chef forages, he is engaged with nature, and therefore he cares about nature and does his best to be environmentally responsible on the whole. This is the type of extrapolation the mind makes when we hear terms like organic, sustainable, free range, cage free, hormone free, non-GMO, seasonal, local, green, natural, wild, raw, fair trade, homemade. Each implies the others and is a convenient signifier for “environmentally sound” the same way that light, fresh, low fat, and whole grain connote “healthy” whether or not what they’re describing is, in fact, good for you.
Many people—myself included—take it on blind faith that a small, localized food system is definitively better than a large-scale one. I’m not saying it isn’t, but testing this assumption against detailed data on a restaurant that specializes in small scale seemed like a worthy pursuit. Again, I was impressed and encouraged when René Redzepi and the board of directors at Noma agreed to be part of the study.
So Peter and I settled on a life-cycle analysis of three distinct meals. What we were after was a single number for each: the kilograms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions (CO2e) produced by each meal—the meal’s carbon footprint.
A full life-cycle analysis examines the total environmental impact of a product, from raw material to used item. For instance, if we were to analyze an egg, we’d look at everything that went into the care and raising of the chicken that laid the egg (what it ate, how the feed was grown, how the feed got to the farm); the transportation of the egg from the farm, to the distributor, to the store, to the consumer; and whether the shell was composted or simply discarded. Such a lifecycle analysis can run hundreds of pages, the product of thousands of hours of research.
Ours was more like a life-cycle analysis lite. Peter described it to me as not looking at this egg, but looking at an egg. In other words, we’d be specific where possible—looking at actual power and gas bills, and real delivery schedules—and generalizing where necessary. Rather than looking at the actual berries used at Noma, we’d use publicly available information on fresh berries from Nordic countries.
The six areas we examined were:3
Deliveries, including the frequency and size of trucks bringing food and supplies to each restaurant. In the case of the home meal, we looked at the emissions associated with driving to the grocery store and back.
Foraging, including the size of the car used by Noma’s house foragers and the distance they traveled each day. (There was no foraging involved in the Prime Meats or home meal.)
Other energy use, specifically natural gas.
Waste breakdown4 and hauling.
Ingredients, meaning the emissions associated with the cultivation and/or production of the raw vegetables, meat, and pantry items used in every dish.