(Note - this article, authored by myself, was originally published in 'UK BBQ Mag' in Winter 2017 (p.74). Whilst this publication no longer continues it has been replaced by BBQ Magazine, please check out their website for more details and opportunity to subscribe to this publication which unlike its predecessor is now in print. The original article can be found here.)
We all love to barbecue but how much attention do we really pay to the impact we are having on the sustainability of our food system? Until I looked into it as part of my Masters in Business Administration research I didn’t either, but during summer 2017 I conducted a review of existing sustainability literature and interviewed a number of prominent individuals in the UK barbecue food scene on the topic of sustainability. The issues present in the literature and those that emerged from the research are the ones regularly debated in barbecue forums and social media. This debate is brilliant, if only that it is taking place, as I imagine it’s not the sort of debate that takes place as regularly in other food scenes or styles of cooking. The polarising nature of the debate(s) is also indicative of the polarising nature of barbecue as both a positive and negative driver of sustainability.
Why care? The food system that provides us with sustenance is also one of the most environmentally destructive processes on the planet with further social and economic impacts. Urbanisation and the commoditisation of food means we are disconnected from our food, which has changed our choices, attitudes and behaviours towards food. In the UK, 41 million of us are obese or overweight, yet almost 5 million live in food poverty. This compromises the ability for future generations to be able to provide for themselves, the key tenet of sustainability.
What’s barbecue got to do with this? Well, on most issues there is no indication that overall barbecue is any better or worse than other styles of cooking or areas of the food industry. However, there are some issues unique to barbecue and it is here where both the best and worst aspects of sustainability are evident. This is set against evidence that barbecue has become increasingly popular in the UK (if you hadn’t already noticed!) where since 2008 the number of North American, burger and barbecue-steak restaurants has grown by 80%, 71% and 52% respectively. This is reflected in menu trends with instances of brisket on menus increasing by 800%, and short ribs by 300%, in only a year. There is, therefore, an opportunity as the UK barbecue scene grows to make a positive contributor to sustainability...or not. Barbecue can be as sustainable as it needs to be, which may seem like a challenge but barbecue has many sustainability features already built in, they just need to be harnessed or tweaked.
Fire it up. Let’s start with charcoal, not even a foodstuff, but clearly a key component of barbecue. Charcoal production can be, if done carelessly, one of the worst things you can do to the environment; deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the release of greenhouse and other damaging compounds into the atmosphere are all recognised impacts. This is before one considers the negative social and economic effects charcoal production has on some communities such as inequality, bribery to officials and the misemployment of agricultural workers, let alone that taxation of the illegal charcoal trade is the main source of funding for the Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab (so yes, some charcoal directly funds terrorism, but perhaps reassuringly for UK consumers the UN ban on Somali charcoal means most of the 'terrorist charcoal' ends up in the Middle East). However, despite the negative press charcoal gets the World Agroforestry Centre states that “if managed properly charcoal can provide a low-cost and locally available energy source that has the potential to become sustainable”. Charcoal is a huge source of revenue, and therefore employment, for some developing countries and even the environmental impact of charcoal production can be significantly reduced. A ‘retort kiln’ burns off the harmful gases, preventing their release into the atmosphere, and uses the heat generated to fire the kiln, reducing the amount of additional energy required. Finally, it goes without saying that wood sourced from properly managed woodlands means that the process is as good as carbon neutral. We have access in the UK to excellent quality, sustainably made charcoal which many back yard cooks and restaurants choose on the basis of quality rather than sustainability (but the overall effect is a positive one). Not all charcoal is made equal, and it needs to be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem. In terms of other fuel sources in the barbecue scene, LPG has its environmental challenges being a fossil fuel (many purists would argue 'gas' isn't a proper form of barbecue, I don't really mind as long as people are happy, safe and being well-nourished) and there are no studies on the sustainability of electric pellet smokers. It is possible that with the latter there are opportunities here for sustainable barbecuing but research is needed.
But doesn’t eating barbecue cause cancer? It is true that some carcinogenic compounds (PAHs, HCAs and acrylamide) are produced during cooking, especially grilling. However, there is insufficient evidence that these compounds increase the risk of cancer in humans through dietary intake. Rats given pure samples of these compounds, usually from sources such as tobacco smoke, in levels 1000-10,000 times the exposure we have in our diet are more likely to develop cancer…unsurprisingly! Let’s not forget that cooking food also kills harmful bacteria that cause food poisoning, and provides us with the highly appealing colours, flavours and aromas created by the Maillard reaction. Ways that have been scientifically proven to reduce the levels of these compounds in our food include; reducing the cooking time (eat your steak rare!), not cooking meat directly above the heat source (do some indirect cooking!), the use of clean burning hardwood (use good quality charcoal!) and the addition of ingredients, usually as a marinade, that include any the following: garlic, onion powder, lemon juice, beer, red wine, virgin olive oil, apple juice, lemongrass oil, clove bud oil, rosemary and chilli pepper. It is apparent then that what most of us are doing in our barbecue practices already is offsetting and reducing the risk that these harmful compounds pose, if indeed you were worried about this unproven health risk in the first place.
What’s the beef? Well…beef. The issue of livestock’s contribution to sustainability is scientifically complex, politically charged, evidentially controversial and emotive. So, rather than tackling this brisket packer cut sized issue let’s look at a few digestible, burnt end-sized issues. Firstly, despite the negative (usually environmental) impact of some livestock rearing practices, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rear and eat meat. The health benefits of eating moderate amounts of red meat and other quality animal protein is well-documented, being high in protein and a rich source of key vitamins and minerals. This is notwithstanding the contribution that grazed animals have on preserving prairie and grasslands, the use of manure that reduces the requirement for chemical fertiliser and the important role livestock plays in rural economies. In the UK, the livestock industry employs 100,000 people and generates £3bn of revenue. However, there is a negative side to acknowledge, in the US, 97% of beef comes from feedlots, usually characterised by cramped unsanitary conditions, requiring pre-treatment doses of antibiotics (contributing to antibiotic resistance) where animals are reared on crops which would have been fit for human consumption (increasing the energy requirement of the food system). There are no known US-style feedlot systems operating in the UK with the discovery of a similar system in Lincolnshire in 2013 creating uproar. In the UK 80% of livestock graze on grassland not suitable for arable farming, with the remaining 20% on areas in arable rotation. In addition, 50% of UK beef is from dairy-bred calves, making use of a by-product from the dairy industry. So how does the barbecue scene shape up on the issue of meat? On the one hand there is a huge amount of pride people in the UK barbecue scene have in buying and promoting meat that they know the source and provenance of, and that it is British. But the nature of barbecue means there is a demand out there for large amounts of meat at the most reasonable price, this price pressure likely forces some producers to be less sustainable than they could be. Outside the price trap, there is also another huge exception which divides the UK barbecue scene, the ‘b’ word, yes, brisket.
You’re taking the brisket, right? In the interviews I conducted in summer 2017 the word ‘brisket’ was mentioned more times than the words ‘cow’ and ‘beef’ combined, let alone the words ‘chicken’, ‘pork’ and ‘pig’. One of the most divisive issues it appears in the UK barbecue scene is USDA vs UK. I will let you make up your own mind on the aesthetic qualities of either but the evidence (in lieu of a through-life sustainability assessment) points towards USDA beef being less sustainable than British, not just in the rearing methods but adding the energy demand for transportation, packaging and refrigeration the carbon footprint starts to grow. This is before you consider the social and economic aspects of sustainability, such as buying locally, that are missed by not buying British.
Go local. There are a variety of reasons why buying local is better for sustainability. Reduced food miles is one, but less miles travelled doesn’t always mean more sustainable. To be sustainable the local food system needs to have the environmental, economic, social and health interests of the community at heart. Locally sourced food is also believed by many to be fresher and better quality, and it is this reason local produce is prevalent in the barbecue scene. To take local a step further, it doesn’t necessarily have to be geographically local, as box delivery schemes, farmers’ markets, food festivals and direct sales are all examples where the social distance between producer and consumer is shorter, and people are more socially connected with the source of their food. This means they are more likely to care how it was produced and that it was done sustainably.
Barbecue…a social animal. The social aspects of food sustainability are not to be underestimated. Urbanisation and the commoditisation of food has meant we are more disconnected from our food. This impacts sustainability because as consumers we know less about where our food comes from, care less how it is produced and value it much less, but barbecue has some pretty good credentials in this area. Barbecue is a very social occasion, one meaning of the word even describes such an occasion, where a central focus of the occasion is usually the food. Barbecue is also very visual, the large cuts of meat often look near enough like they did when they came off the carcass and you’re always seeing those ‘which cuts come from where’ signs of animals with dotted lines across them in barbecue joints. For many people barbecue is also one for the few things they will cook absolutely from scratch. A lot of the popular barbecue cuts also aren’t readily available in the supermarket, which means you have to go to your butcher, and heaven forbid actually have to have a conversation with him (or her) about the meat. Once you’ve had this conversation the evidence suggests you less likely to waste what you’ve bought.
Waste not want not. In the UK food service sector food waste costs £2.5bn a year, of which 75% was edible and only 12% was recycled. Although there are no studies on barbecue specifically it does appear to have a fairly good approach to waste, certainly compared to other food cuisines. Barbecue generally regards more of the animal to edible, the barbecue kingpin cut, brisket, was the cut that used to be fed to the dogs. Similarly with pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken wings and chicken thighs, all much more revered in barbecue than other cuisines where the prime cuts are champion. This along with recent trends for the popularity of beef and pig’s cheeks, bone marrow and ‘lesser’ cuts of steak such bavette/ flank, onglette/ hanger and skirt all point to barbecue valuing so much more of the animal than other cuisines, primarily because barbecue is one of the best ways to bring out the best from these cuts of meat. It is no surprise that a lot of the nose-to-tail style food outlets tend to have a strong barbecue connection. In addition to the variety of the start product, barbecue is also a really good way of using leftovers, think Brunswick stews, pit beans, chillis, tacos, sandwiches, wraps, pie fillings and salads.
Variety is the spice of life. The diversity of meat we consume globally is limited, 90% of our meat comes from only 14 species of animal, each of whose own intra-species genetic diversity is gradually decreasing as a result of selective breeding. A lot of this is for commercial reasons, but for reasons of quality there appears to be a resurgence in the barbecue scene for older, rarer and more traditional breeds, particularly pigs and cows. However, if this exercise is purely aesthetic and by focusing on rare breeds there is a sustainability compromise elsewhere (e.g. you have to feed it more, and for longer, for less return), there is a danger that in thinking we are doing a good thing for sustainability ends up inadvertently being negative, but there is no evidence to support this either way as yet. An example where barbecue appears to be making a positive contribution is support for the #goatober campaign in recent years, promoting the consumption of kid goat meat, a by-product of the goat dairy industry, who unlike their bovine counterparts have traditionally had less commercial use.
What’s a ‘cue to do? The research suggests that barbecue can be a really sustainable way of cooking, on environmental, social and economic grounds, let alone being absolutely delicious and a lot of fun. There’s every reason why this should be the case as it’s how we’ve cooked for the last 10,000 years, less the last 100 years since the invention of the electric cooker and the sustainability of our food system started to go a bit wrong. But it’s not my role or the role of UK BBQ Mag to suggest how you should or shouldn’t approach your barbecue, instead I will say how what I’ve learned has changed my behaviour.
Since educating myself on the issues I can’t now unlearn them, so I try and do what I can as often as I can. Do I always use the local butcher? No. Do I solely use charcoal that I can identify as being sustainably made? No. Do I manage to not waste any food? No. Have I become a vegan? Certainly not! But do I use the local butcher more, buy the odd bag of sustainable charcoal, eat a wider range of cuts, value more of the animal, throw less away and eat a bit less meat and more vegetables, yes. As a result, I’ve hopefully made a small difference, and as time goes on this difference grows and it becomes easier as the sustainable behaviour just becomes the norm, and in any case it’s better than doing nothing. I’m not an eco-warrior, or rich, or best mates with a farmer, but I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research and found it fascinating and merely wanted to share what I found with others in the barbecue family, so if nothing else its some ‘cue for thought!
This poster was a word cloud generated from the 70,000 plus words from the transcripts from the interviews I conducted for my MBA dissertation (for which I was awarded a distinction!). I used the analysis of the word cloud in the dissertation analysis as it highlighted aspects that matched with the literature review (or acknowledging parts that were missed) and what I had drawn from my analysis. The word 'people' was the most common word throughout the interviews, by a high margin, indicating that this is what barbecue is really about.