Thursday, November 29, 2007

Can a Steakhouse be Green?

Can you be an environmentalist and have a cheeseburger every now and then? It's a debate that recently caught fire over at Gristmill, as well as on AOL Instant Messenger between myself and a friend after I told him about Ted's Montana Grill, a steakhouse with some eco-friendly practices.

I won't get into the Gristmill debate because I think it was yet another example of PETA doing whatever it takes to get publicity. But I have a lot of respect for this friend, so when he said a steakhouse can never be "green" because it serves so much meat, it got me to doing some thinking (and fortunately for you, blogging).

My friend is an
environmental vegetarian, choosing not to eat meat because of its production's detrimental effects on the planet. Because of the intensive amounts of energy it takes to raise cattle, and to a lesser extent pigs and poultry, some environmental vegetarians will make the case that you can do more to lower your carbon footprint by not eating meat than you could by switching your car to a Prius. Fish isn't necessarily much better unless you're eating sustainable seafood.

The Green Miles, on the other hand, is an omnivore. We don't ask people to stop driving altogether. Why should we ask them to stop eating meat? I recognize the detrimental effects of beef production, and just like I try to avoid driving when I can, I avoid red meat when I can, recently
switching to vegetarian lunches.

So if I'm going to eat a cheeseburger anyway, why not get a bison burger? It's
better for the planet than beef:

Bison are leaner than cattle because they are still wild animals who range and eat grass; they do not tolerate confinement well, and so they cannot be fattened the way we do cattle, which we have bred to eat rich corn mixtures their entire adult lives. Growing corn to feed cattle costs the nation dearly in terms of pesticide and fertilizer runoff. The pollution and inhumanity of the confinement-feedlot beef system make it one of postwar America's biggest ecological blunders.

Bison, on the other hand, eat grass that grows freely, and the manure they produce is a natural fertilizer. True, some bison ranchers are irresponsibly corralling and then "finishing" their animals with a fattier diet of grain just before slaughter. This makes the meat richer, more like beef. Ted's Montana Grill serves grain-finished bison, for instance, although CEO George McKerrow Jr. says the chain is testing grass-finished meat for consistency and quality.

That last line is definitely a black eye for Ted's. But they do try to make up for it in other ways:
* Menus and tablecloths are printed on 100% recycled paper
* Paper straws (hadn't been produced in the U.S. since 1970)
* To-go cups are made of biodegradable cornstarch
* To-go ware is made of aluminum so we can recycle it
* Soft drinks are served in recyclable glass bottles
* Organic beer on the menu
* The entire chain is non-smoking
Will Ted's save the planet? No. But they don't claim they will. I didn't even know about their eco-friendly features until I went in search of a tasty low-fat burger. And considering how few Arlington bars and restaurants have any green features at all, it's nice to see an establishment going after some of the low-hanging fruit on sustainability. Why don't other places do more? It's a good question for the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.
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