Arugula: The beef of the vegetarian world


I just got off a fascinating interview with Dr. Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist who studies the greenhouse gas impact of food. He's probably best known for being co-author on a paper about how reducing meat in U.S. diets (or flat-out going vegetarian) could make a big improvement on this country's emissions footprint. In other words, he's usually the guy telling you to stop eating beef.

But I wanted to know whether all vegetables were created equal. If you really care about reducing your carbon footprint, are there veggies or fruits you should be shunning along with the cows? The answer, according to Eshel, is emphatically "yes".

Depending on where you live, eating baby spinach or arugula is almost like eating a burger, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. It's that intense. Sure, if you live in the Central Valley of California, or in Florida, not so. But most people live very far from those places. If you live east of longitude 100 [Draw a line through the middle of the Dakotas—MKB] and north of, say, Jesse Helms country, you have no business eating greens at all between October and June. Again, you know, you're free to do whatever you want, but if you want to be really careful about your greenhouse gas footprint, this is what you should do.

The reason boils down to the huge amounts of energy needed to run the greenhouses that grow our local baby salad mix in winter, and, to a lesser extent, the fuel burned by trucking in California-grown salad. Although, Eshel says, you'd be way better off, from an emissions standpoint, buying the California greens than buying local—if buying local means greenhouse-grown.

Want to avoid interrogating your salad supplier all winter? Eshel recommends switching to cabbage as a planet-friendly salad base alternative.

Image courtesy Flickr user timlewisnm, via CC


  1. As with all blanket statements like “you have no business eating greens at all between October and June” it’s not 100% true.

    You can overwinter spinach in my climate (upstate NY) by simply growing in an unheated high tunnel. Yes, most (and some varieties are more hardy) greens can’t tolerate sub zero, but there are many that can handle pretty low temperatures and some that can completely freeze (ie spinach) and be ok when they thaw.

    Plants are funny like that, they don’t obey the “rules”.

    I heartily agree with eating seasonally, but this argument throws out the baby with the bathwater.

    1. Definitely. Here in the Seattle area, Kale too, will grow well into the colder months.

  2. The earth will melt into a smoldering molten fireball before I fu%@ing eat cabbage in my salad.

  3. “… eating baby spinach or arugula is almost like eating a burger, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.”

    Fuck it, I’m going to Burger King.

  4. 1) He specifies baby greens. Is there a specific reason why baby greens are more carbon intensive than whole lettuces? I can see that they probably require more acreage per pound, but don’t know whether they require more energy in terms of lamps and stuff. I wonder whether plants that have sat consuming energy under heat and light for an extra three weeks really provide proportionally more food. Anyone know?

    2) The other problem with this is that it gives people who eat a steak 7 days a week a reason to say “why should I change? It’s just as bad as eating greens.” Of course, I’m not saying scientific truths shouldn’t be published. It’s just… tricky…

  5. Eating cabbage as my salad base all the time won’t be too good for my greenhouse gas emissions, if you know what I mean…

    1. Actually that’s not completely true. It’s the same with beans, onions and other types of food that gives you gas. If you don’t eat these kinds of food very often, then yes it will give you gas, maybe even lots of it.

      BUT, one’s body learns to digest certain kinds of food when you ingest more of it. So if you eat it more often, the cultures in your gut adopts, it is digested properly and you don’t get gas from it anymore.

  6. In Wisconsin, we have lots of choices for _seasonal_ greens – if you time it right, you can eat greens out of your own garden almost year round. We made a glass cover for our small garden, opened it during the day and closed it at night or when really cold an has lettuce and _excellent_ spinach all winter.

    Most food choices come down ethically to eating what’s in season or grows in your area easily and saving what you can’t eat for when it isn’t growing (preserving).

  7. grow your own.
    spinach, arugula, kale, collard greens. whatever. dig a hole in the ground plant the shit and eat it all summer long.

    as a double win plus good all them little green plants suck up C-oh-2 too.

  8. I dig the idea of eating locally and seasonally. I buy almost all of my produce from local farmer’s markets here in LA, and avoid imported stuff like pineapples and raw coconuts, delish though they may be.

    I’m strongly with other commenters here who’ve pointed out that some nuance may have been lost in the guy’s quote.

    Some thoughts

    1) Kale is also your friend! It’s a dark leafy green that provides nutrients that “regular cabbage” does not. It grows in colder weather months outdoors in a lot more climates than baby greens can. Some other varieties of brassica veggies (collards maybe?) should also be cold-hardy-er. You don’t have to avoid greens altogether in cold weather months, and cold weather states, to abide by the lower-carbon-footprint goal.

    2) There are, as another commenter mentioned, ways to get less evil baby greens if you’re into growing them yourself in those colder months.

    3) sprouts are great, too, as a winter alternative to spendy yuppie lettuce. easy and safe to grow in your kitchen, without some of the contamination risk from buying sprouts in stores. I’m not a big wheatgrass juice person, but that’s another leafy green thing you can do in your home (requires a juicer, of course).

    Green veggies are such an important, positive part of a healthy diet, particularly for Americans who tend to have shitty diets. I would really emphasize the eco-friendly alternatives before we throw up our hands and go, welp, fuckit, i’m gettin’ a big mac.

    Also, while I get the Dr. Eshel’s point, and it’s a really really good one, I’m not so sure that a plate of even the most inefficiently produced snob-grass (what we used to call arugula) involves equal or greater energy consumption (or, say, causes equal or greater environmental impact) than a beef hamburger. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’d like to see the math.

    In closing, I would like to say that I despise arugula. I really can’t stand it.

    1. Thanks for your comments Xeni. The write initial write up left a bad taste in my mouth…much like what arugula does to you. It seems to assume that greens are only grown in California. Catchy headline but quite misleading for those who know nothing about growing vegetables. Here in Portland, OR we can grow greens almost all year long (9-10 months) with no infrastructure besides some good soil and compost. With some floating row cover and a simple hoop house/cold frame that number gets bumped up to 12 months of greens growing per year. I wish the original write up had mentioned something along those lines. Something to educate rather than sensationalize. Sensational headline to get readers in, but no “meat” in the content. The write up completely ignores the obvious fact that there is a huge local food movement out there (huge-er in some places than others). A little disappointing, but I still love BoingBoing!

  9. Or grow arugula in a pot, and clip it with scissors. Watch it grow back! Seed is very cheap.

  10. Just bought a big ole bag of this at the farmers market last week.

    I might have some more for dinner tonight. A light arugula salad, with a sesame vinaigrette, topped with Black Peppercorn Pate. YUM!

  11. or everyone can stop eating meat…and then even if you eat spinach or aragula throughout the year…it would be fine…

    it’s the meat ,people thats bad…

  12. Hmm. A scientist who specializes in food-related green house gas emission claims greenhouse-grown winter arugula has as large a carbon footprint as beef.

    Xeni Jardin is not so sure.

    Neither one has provided ANY data!

    Who do you believe? (I believe the scientist – especially if we’re doing a per-calorie carbon footprint comparison. It probably takes a LOT of greenhouses worth of arugula to grow enough calories to match a big juicy steak)

    The real problem here? There’s no link here to the entire interview. All we have is one out of context quote, which is worth about 1 calorie of arugula.

  13. What if keeping a small carbon-neutral footprint isn’t the only concern in the world?

    What if we’re also concerned about reducing land dedicated to animals?

    What if we’re also concerned about shipping water to non-normal locations…in which case growing lettuce in the middle of the desert by taking so much water from the Colorado River and depriving historical users downriver of any water is a bad thing. In that case Most people in the SW and southern/central california shouldn’t be eating lettuce either.

    1. It’s these kinds of questions that really make me wonder what the point of “keeping a small carbon footprint” is. Look, I care about the environment, but my own small part is doing nothing to help the problem; all of the real environmental problems are structural in nature. The government has to take a stake in this for it to matter, and they’re too busy trying to get reelected to do anything about the serious problems.

      What really annoys me is how much all of this environmentalism is just expensive masturbatory self-congratulations for the upper classes. I can’t be the only person who can’t afford to eat green, or buy a hybrid, or buy carbon offsets and retrofit my house with solar panels. Yes, there’s a lot of good advice here; growing your own food is totally logical and an easy step. But then you get into tricky issues of where to grow (you can’t feed a family on potted plants) and opportunity costs.

      It’s just a crapshoot. We need a government willing to tackle these problems, rather than just “do our part” and see nothing happen.

  14. Chard! Chard! Chard!

    At 45° 36′ N 122° 36′ W our chard grew well into the fall and self-seeded this spring. Of course, in early spring our salads were chock full of miners lettuce. of course, I hate salad and love collards/kale/chard/cabbage so I’d actually rather eat those!

  15. The paper linked in the post refers to greenhouse gas emissions per kilocalorie of food.

    Unless you’re eating a huge amount off baby greens and nothing else, the comparison to beef is not an appropriate one. Most of the calories in a salad come from the dressing.

  16. Go Local! Like in your backyard. Just to be clear, this is my picture on this post and… that arugula was eaten within 5 miles from where it was grown and handpicked right here in a community garden in our town. We have also started using locally raised and butchered beef and pork. thanks for using the pic and thanks for the info.

  17. Luckily, beef isn’t transported to consumers. Not to mention that it’s featherlight, just like a bag of salad mix.

    We have greens all winter long here in the coastal Pacific NW, thanks very much.

  18. I have a ton of arugula (both wild and regular) growing crazy with no assistance by myself in my back yard in Oakland. It sprouted out of the hay that covers my geese pen and the geese don’t like to eat it. More for me :) Just grow your own guilt free.

  19. arugula is so easy to grow in a pot! it only takes a few week per crop, and you can grow it in a sunny window. how’s that for local & ecofriendly?

  20. This is the kind of article that makes people thinking about vegetarianism go, “There is no hope.”

  21. I want to chime in here that I grow both Arugula and Spinach, in 3000 sq ft of greenhouse space, during chilly Idaho winters, without any heat whatsoever. I do so using organic methods and while we don’t harvest amazing quantities that the commercial behemoths manage during the winter months we still supply our customers with fresh local greens with no heat related greenhouse gas emissions. Arugula and Spinach can both survive freezing solid, indeed freezing can improve the flavor of these greens by a natural plant response which is to produce more sugars in the leaves as a type of antifreeze.

  22. if you have a yard, even a strip of earth that catches 4 hours of sun a day, you can grow your baby greens, all year round, even in colder climates. you can build a cold frame or hot bed ( to suit your space, and plant and replant…sow your wee babys every few weeks, and keep clipping what you need. everything just keeps on growing. in the linked article, it suggests manure to provide the heat, but you can save your raw veggie waste (peelings and such) in a compost bucket and use that instead. the heat generated by the compost and straw breaking down keeps your frame good and warm. be sure sure and follow depth instructions; the heat will actually burn the roots. don’t worry about neatness while sowing, no need for tidy rows, a carpet of yummy green that you will keep clipping away at to make room for the newbies is great.
    arugula (aka ‘red rocket’) grows very quickly, and has a nutty flavour when young, but becomes quite spicy beyond the baby stage. most seed companies sell mixed greens packets, a variety of seeds that grow happily together.
    all you need to cut your salad ‘carbon footprint’ to zero is a few feet of soil and materials you can scrounge up for free or cheap with little effort.
    just don’t forget to water your babies.

  23. Electricity co-generation means that you can use waste heat from power plants to provide heating. Usually, Combined Heat & Power plants provide district heating, but one example of where the excess heat is used to warm greenhouses is Masnedø in Denmark:

    I believe one benefit of using micro-co-generation is that you can exhaust flue gases directly into the greenhouse, increasing the levels of COâ‚‚ and improving photosynthetic conditions. If you have a clean-burning fuel that is…

  24. It grows like a weed in my yard. It has displaced much of the dandelions, spurge, and mallow.

    I transplanted a six-pack into my garden eight years ago. After it went to seed, I tossed it into the weedy patch at the side of my house. When that generation bolted I let it be. it grows year round, needing no fertilizer or water beyond what the clouds provide. It’s nearly impervious to pests. This is what my yard looks like now if I let it go:

    I enjoy the way it smells when I step on it, and I pick it when I’m in the mood. I laugh to see people pay $8/lb for it at the Farmer’s Market. The best side dish in the world: brown some pancetta, add haricots verts and when they’re about done, toss in a bunch of arugula.

    I’ve also got sorghum, amaranth, sorrel, salad burnet, and osaka mustard self-seeding. They’re not weeds, they’re my hedge against famine.

  25. Most of the doom bringing stats about beef assume unnatural grain feeding, which is the norm in the US.

    Having said that, and living just north of the aforementioned Central Valley, I’ll continue to eat delicious arugula and even more delicious grass fed local beef.

  26. Just remember to add the environmental cost of raising grain-fed arugula, moving the arugula through the slaughter house, packaging the choice cuts, transport, and don’t forget to include the amount of methane arugula produce due to flatulence.

    Of course, one of the worst problems is when we ship our arugula internationally. Fortunately, certain countries like the UK, Japan, or s. Korea have banned imports of US arugula for fear that lax US safety standards have contaminated them with “mad-arugula disease”.

  27. “The reason boils down to the huge amounts of energy needed to run the greenhouses that grow our local baby salad mix in winter, and, to a lesser extent, the fuel burned by trucking in California-grown salad.”

    So if you grow them yourself, or get them from a known supplier who has a carbon-friendly production chain, you may indeed have business eating greens between October and June.

  28. As a child in New England, I remember watching my mother pick brussel sprouts out from under the snow in the dead of winter, as my sister and I cursed at how hearty the plant was. (now I love them…)

  29. What I’ve been wondering is how arugula picked up that faintly pompous initial a in (US) English. There’s probably a sensible historical reason, but it looks like an overcomplication. :)

  30. dw_funk – i absolutely agree that we need responsible government who will take charge & be leaders… then again, ALL elected governments are bound by law to represent the best interests of the people they govern! As for this load of horsesh*t, i can’t believe how many people just take this stuff whole – it’s not even logical, nor has it been properly backed up with proof!! That’s another thing we need: reporters who actually know the meaning of the word journalism, and how it applies to their obligations – & editors need to bone up too, for that matter…
    ps. spreading this sort of nonsense does nothing good for anyone – it just “sensationalizes” your column so you get more hits. Ya know what? TRUTH gets hits too; try it!

  31. To parrot other people’s comments, grow your own. It’s incredibly easy to grow. Very fast and abundant. I’ve been eating homegrown arugula from just two packets of seeds for the past two months now, and I still have an abundance of it!

  32. The obvious solution is to ship vegetables by nuclear-powered truck.

    On the other hand, if “we don’t need nuclear power” then there must be a better solution, which also means there’s no need to give up winter greens.

    1. What do you do with the nuclear waste your Chernobyl-mobile produces? I like to think the electric car with a super battery will happen before any non-carbon solution will fit inside a car, especially since green power production on a large scale isn’t just a pipe dream.

      dontbelievethehype: I think that it’d be hard to refute the logic of Dr. Eshel’s claims. But you have a point. Rather than cast the “carbon footprint” problem as a structural issue, it’s spun into this self-improvement narrative where we each have to be concerned about our impact on the world. There isn’t enough demographic momentum behind climate change; half the US population still believes it’s all a stupid hoax because when they look outside it’s still chilly half the year. When people really get angry, that’s when the government will have to address the problem. Let’s hope that happens sometime before we completely screw the planet.

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