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As an entrepreneur, Michelle Courtright has run a creative brand agency and owned the co-working space Flock. What she could not envision was how breast cancer would invigorate her desire to open a plant- based restaurant. Chemotherapy, an infection, and surgery had her bedridden for months. She emerged asking herself, “What’s next?” and started looking at restaurant properties, settling on a 6,000-square-foot space in Minneapolis that opened as fig + farro in January 2018.
Courtright has been a vegetarian for more than 20 years. She was in Dublin during the foot-and-mouth disease that required the burning of cattle. Seeing the images of piles of animals on fire made her wonder, “What kind of world is this? Who are we?”
She adds lightly, “Human beings are weird.”
After cancer, she extended an open invitation to feed people in her home every night at plant-based dinner parties, to share information about food options and discuss how it makes an impact on climate change.
“Eating meat is so inefficient,” Courtright says, listing the factors: “The energy use that goes into raising cattle. The land and water required for crops to feed the animals before you kill them. The methane alone from those animals is 26 times more powerful than the CO2 of all vehicles combined.”
Courtright lauds Minnesota’s progressive renewable energy agenda, but also points out that the state’s food and agriculture industry is a bigger contributor to climate change than public transportation. As a state, she believes we can become a leader in adapting eating habits — including adding more meatless dinners to our diets. Courtright’s view is that our state was a quick game-changer on recycling and LGBTQ+ rights — food choice is a logical next step in our social norms.
In 2019, Courtright was chosen by local non-profit Climate Generation as one of four Minnesota delegates to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland. A panel that featured an Oxford University School of Food researcher showed the inadequacies of livestock production and suggested labeling food with greenhouse gas impact next to nutritional information. Another panelist, from the Nordic Food Policy Lab talked about menu creation with institutions like schools, hospitals, and governmental offices that lowers both carbon emissions (30 percent) and food costs (60 percent).
Not everything about the two-week event seemed forward-thinking to Courtright. She met the President of the Maldive Islands, a series of atolls in the Indian Ocean, whose lands are shrinking into rising waters. He is seeking immigration rights to safely relocate people, and was frustrated that it took many days simply to agree on whether to include the word “welcome” in a statement of action steps. He left the summit saying he would find solutions in private investments, not governmental action.
Courtright has a measured optimism about the ability of U.S. citizens and government to make meaningful progress. “Even if the Administration changes in 2020, it’s still a battle to get back to where we were,” she says.
She cannot look at her three young children and have them wonder what their mother did to improve the state of the planet. “It’s up to individuals to do as much as we can,” Courtright says.
According to University of Chicago research, eating one meatless meal per week is the equivalent of taking 500 cars off the road. “Let’s figure out our diets, make some simple switches, learn how to prepare plant- based comfort foods,” says Michelle Courtright.
- Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Co-benefits of Dietary Change, Oxford University
- Carbon Footprint Factsheet, University of Michigan, Center for Sustainable Systems
- How Far Will You Go to Reduce Your Beef Intake?, CNN, December 9, 2018
- “If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef,” The Atlantic, August 2017
- “How Your Diet Can Save the Planet,” Fortune, July 2017
- “Eat Less Meat To Avoid Dangerous Global Warming, Scientists Say,” The Guardian, March 2016
- “The World in 2019: The Year of the Vegan,” The Economist