Eat plants and go electric: how to break food TV’s bad climate habits

Food accounts for somewhere between 25% and 33% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. Illustration: George Wylesol/The Guardian

From product placement for unnecessary gadgets to meat-centred cooking, TV can make us think unsustainable is normal

When you log in to your favorite streaming service and pull up a cooking show, chances are you’re just looking for a bit of entertainment – maybe even to shut your brain off for a while. But if what you’re watching is constantly exposing you to images of sizzling steaks, roaring gas flames and all the fanciest new appliances, it might be reinforcing habits or norms that aren’t exactly climate friendly.

While there’s not enough data to pinpoint precisely what effect TV and film has on our behavior, experts say that what we see on screen can help shape our sense of what’s normal – and therefore acceptable. Unfortunately, what we’re shown on TV is rarely a great guide for how we might begin reducing the climate impacts of food, which accounts for somewhere between 25% and 33% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Food systems are a vital piece of the climate puzzle,” said Ellis Watamanuk, senior director at the Entertainment Lab at Rare, a behavioral science-focused environmental non-profit. “Even if we got rid of fossil fuels today, we would still have to change the way we’re eating.”

So how do we change the way we eat? Here are some climate pitfalls commonly showcased in your favorite cooking shows – and what you can do to avoid them and up your kitchen sustainability game.

Eat more plants

Shows like Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen have built entire episodes around the challenges of cooking the perfect steak, complete with opening shots of different cuts of raw meat laid out on a table. But according to analysis from Rare, switching to a vegan or even just a “climatarian” diet (which excludes beef, lamb and goat, and limits poultry, pork and fish) is one of the most impactful climate actions a person can take – more so than sourcing food locally, recycling or skipping a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Swapping one serving of beef with one serving of chicken once a week would result in saving 0.71 tons of CO2 per year per person, according to Rare. Photograph: Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Even just swapping one serving of beef with one serving of chicken once a week would result in saving 0.71 tons of CO2 per year per person, according to Rare.

“It’s not necessarily about going zero to 100% plant-based,” said Watamanuk. “Maybe it just starts by using more poultry or fish over beef.” And while subtracting things from your menu can feel hard, adding something new is exciting – so making time to experiment with new dishes that make you look forward to eating a lower-impact meal is worthwhile.

If what you’re seeing on TV isn’t inspiring enough in that regard, there are plenty of people on social media filling the gap by showcasing cooking with plants and fungi, said Carleigh Bodrug, a cookbook author and creator of the platform PlantYou. “Being a millennial, I think that the majority of the food media that I consume is on social media as opposed to television anyway,” she said. “And there is a huge plant slant on social media right now, which I’m happy to see.”

Bodrug amassed more than 6 million followers across Instagram and TikTok by creating cooking videos of plant-based foods, which experts say are more sustainable than the meat-heavy diets eaten by the average American. But Bodrug has been told by television producers that it’s “just too hard” to sell plant-based shows to networks, because “people don’t want to watch that; they want really indulgent food full of meat and cheese” – even though she’s living proof that it’s quite possible to get people to watch videos of someone making food without meat.

You can always start by adjusting the recipes on your favorite cooking shows by swapping out meat and dairy for other ingredients like tofu – think tofu tacos or vegan tzatziki – but there are also plenty of already plant-based meals to explore, like Bodrug’s creamy butter beans.

Go electric

Next Level Chef may be so full of gas stoves (and the occasional dish catching fire) that it makes burning fossil fuels indoors while cooking seem like just a part of life. But it’s playing right into big oil’s hands when it does so. The oil and gas lobby has spent millions of dollars to convince the general public – and celebrity chefs – that gas appliances make for a better cooking experience, and has been so successful that people often forget that “cooking with gas” isn’t some charming colloquialism, but a marketing term that the industry began pushing in the 1930s. Those efforts continue today, with oil and gas groups paying everyone from DIY home makeover stars to a Netflix science show host to shill for propane on TV.

In more recent years, evidence has begun to pile up that cooking with gas is far more detrimental to the environment and human health alike than the public previously understood. Gas stoves emit so many harmful pollutants that the same level of pollution would be illegal outdoors; are responsible for an alarming one in eight cases of child asthma; and emit the cancer-linked chemical benzene. Plus, they keep emitting harmful chemicals even when they’re turned off or used with a ventilation hood.

So if you see Rachael Ray turning the knobs on a gas stove, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the best option available. First off, an increasing number of professional chefs are switching simply because induction stoves are more precise, easier to clean, quieter and don’t heat up the whole kitchen unpleasantly. Some TV shows, like the Great British Baking Show, have received the memo and switched to induction in recent years, too.

Of course, swapping out an oven and stove is a big decision that comes with a big price tag, says Sarah Lazarovic, head of communications at the non-profit Rewiring America, and therefore not one you might be able to make immediately. But “we need everybody’s next everything to be electric if we’re going to have any chance of hitting our climate goals, and the stove is a key part of that,” she said. So the next time you are looking to buy an oven or stove, make sure it’s electric. The good news is that funding from the Inflation Reduction Act means you can get as much as $840 in rebates toward making the switch.

Divert waste by cooking with scraps and leftovers

Good TV requires good visuals, which means that most cooking shows try to have contestants and chefs working with perfect-looking, fresh-as-can-be ingredients piled into dramatic tableaus on shows like Iron Chef. But in real life, most of us don’t have time to go to the grocery store for fresh things every day – which means sometimes getting to the end of the week and dealing with some sad-looking produce or stale bread.

That’s not the kind of food that gets featured in cooking competitions, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy of preserving and eating, noted Dana Gunders, executive director of the food waste non-profit ReFED.

“In the US, we estimate that about 38% of our food never gets eaten. And that has huge implications – it’s over $400bn worth of food; it takes an enormous amount of resources to grow, cook, store, cool and get that food to our tables,” she said. Plus, once it’s thrown into landfill, it releases methane, a climate-warming gas, as it rots. “The greenhouse gas footprint of food waste in the US is more than that of 80m cars annually.”

There are a few cooking shows that highlight working with the dregs at the back of the fridge – Netflix’s Best Leftovers Ever! is a notable example. But if you need more inspiration for how to keep the food and scraps in your kitchen from going to waste, check out Bodrug’s series on “scrappy cooking”, in which she turns broccoli stems into “fries”, pomegranate peels into tea and more.

When it comes to kitchen gadgets, use what you’ve got

If you like to watch Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay, there’s a decent chance you’ve come across chefs relying on unusual or specialized kitchen tools, from high-speed blenders to ice-cream makers. Having spent plenty of time cooking for TV audiences, Priyanka Naik, a vegan chef, author and TV personality, thinks one of the bad habits that TV shows can encourage is the idea that you have to have the latest gadgets to cook what you’re seeing your favorite celebrity chef make. Switching to an electric stove so you lower your kid’s risk of asthma is one thing, but feeling like you have to go buy the latest single-function kitchen tool just because you saw a celebrity chef cooking with it is another.

Plus, product placement is a $23bn industry, which means that it’s highly likely you’ll encounter a few of these subtle advertisements woven into your favorite shows if you watch long enough. Marketers wouldn’t use this tactic if they didn’t think it worked – which might be good for corporations looking to line their pocketbooks, but it can encourage overconsumption by getting us hooked on a never-ending cycle of shopping for things we don’t really need.

Naik’s advice is to avoid hopping on the latest kitchenware and gadget trends. Sure, air fryers are everywhere right now, but you probably don’t need one to pull off most recipes.

“Not everyone is gonna have a fancy mixer or three grills at home, and they can be very wasteful and unnecessary,” she said. Rather than getting caught up on the kitchenware being used onscreen, she added, just know that “you don’t need all these fancy tools – you can use what you already have on hand to make a really beautiful or hearty dish.”

Source: The Guardian (27 October 2023)