"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Today's Ethical Conundrum: Low Carbon Food Choices

I feel like I already do a pretty good job of minimizing my family's environmental impact when it comes to our food choices. Of the food we eat at home, 80-90% of the meat is home-grown and very very local. Milk, eggs and cheese are produced on the farm for well over half the year, and for the rest of the year we just don't eat a whole lot of those things. This year to date I have bought two dozen eggs from the supermarket, and perhaps five or six gallons of milk. Maybe five pounds of cheese. From May to October, a high percentage (70%?) of our vegetable and fruit consumption is also from producers local to within a few miles, due to the success of the trade network.

However, I have by no means banished high-impact foods from our lives. Most significantly, we go out to eat at least once a week. When I eat out, I pretty much throw away the rule book. Sure, I wouldn't knowingly eat a critically endangered species ("I'd like the pan-broiled panda, please - NO, the bluefin tuna sushi."), but I know that my meat is most likely conventionally raised in a CAFO, that my chicken was battery-farmed in cages too small to spread their wings, and that my milk products are chock-full of antibiotics and artificial hormones. I can't see myself as one of those people who spends fifteen minutes grilling the waiter about the liberal-progressive credentials of the food ("Is this tofu organic? Was it grown in Brazil? Were any indigenous people displaced as their rainforest homes were clear-cut for a giant international conglomerate to grow GMO soybeans?"), so that means we just need to eat out less often. Good for the pocketbook, too. We spend far too much on restaurants.

Even when it comes to regular old grocery store shopping, I could certainly do a better job. Today, for example, I went to Costco with my sister. You could argue that Costco is already a good choice, as buying in bulk cuts down on packaging. Well, only if you buy the twenty-pound sack full of plain rolled oats and not the giant carton of individually wrapped, highly processed, forty ingredient oat n' honey granola snacks. On this trip, the only processed "convenience" foods I bought were a big ol bag of fishsticks and a three pound package of chicken-apple sausage. Everything else was staples: rice, butter, oil, flour, fresh fruit. In between items include mega-jar of olives and full-case of canned diced tomatoes.

But let's examine that fresh fruit, shall we? I bought a flat of pomegranates from California. Pomegranates are in season. Also, California is not Mars. It's two states away from me; same coast. Could be worse. But could be better. Of course, if I'm ever going to eat pomegranates as long as I live, they will never be local. Until we retire to Mexico, that is. Pomegranates are my absolutely favorite fruit. One box of poms once or twice a year is not something to beat myself up over. However, there are other items which are not once-or-twice a year, but once or twice a month.

Coffee.

Bananas.

Chocolate.

Oranges, lemons, and limes.

Avocados.

Today I bought a pineapple flown in from Costa Rica. I read that pineapples are the single highest- carbon item of produce on the shelves. I only buy pineapples once or twice a year, but still - how much guilt do I want to ingest with my plate of fruit?

How good is good enough? How low is low enough? What level of virtue should I strive for? What level of personal responsibility for planetary destruction am I comfortable with? When does sane, sober responsibility morph into crazy, obsessive behavior? Is there even any such thing as too much virtue? Is there any acceptable level of harm? These are questions that apply much more widely than food choices, of course.

I've actually recently been having a discussion with my brother - a thoughtful, intellectually rigorous, highly educated man with loads of integrity who nonetheless disagrees with me most of the time (how is that possible?) about the limits of personal responsibility for communal suffering. He's a political conservative and seems to be comfortable with limits that leave me feeling desperately, squishily, quaveringly, liberally guilty. I guess each of us can only consult our own consciences with searching, fearless honesty and try as hard as we can to live by it's dictates.


For those of us who need a little guidance in this endeavor (me! me!) below is a wonderful, easy to follow guide published by Gourmet magazine on it's fabulous and highly recommended "food politics" page. Gourmet recently ceased publication after some sixty years and I feel it is a great loss. Not only was it a terrific resource for everyone interested in cooking, but under it's most recent editor Ruth Reichl it was a strong voice for justice and fairness in our agricultural system, and a voice that got results! The web site is still alive, though probably not for much longer. Please visit the food politics page Food Politics : gourmet.com while it is still around. Meanwhile, enjoy this easy to follow guide for making low-carbon food choices:

Ever since a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that the world’s livestock industry sends more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transportation, pressure has been building on food manufacturers to measure, and ultimately to reduce, their carbon footprints. In March of this year, the British government’s Environmental Audit Committee called for the establishment of a standardized system of labeling to show the impact of consumer goods and services on the earth’s atmosphere.

In general, consumers in England are more familiar with carbon issues than we are. The government-backed Carbon Trust has been pilot-testing a Carbon Reduction Label for a few years now. But American companies are now getting into the act: In January, PepsiCo certified the footprint of its half-gallon carton of Tropicana Premium orange juice with the help of the Carbon Trust, and it plans to release the footprints of Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Gatorade, and Quaker Chewy Granola Bars in the future. (Tropicana has also partnered with Cool Earth in a “Rescue the Rainforest” campaign.)

Opinion varies as to what extent the footprint numbers will affect consumer behavior. Without a meaningful point of reference, the numbers are all but meaningless: The carbon footprint of that half-gallon of Tropicana orange juice, in case you’re wondering, is 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide. Some have suggested that rather than listing the total pounds of carbon dioxide emitted, the labels should indicate how much carbon is embodied in every dollar spent, a system that would enable consumers to compare the impact of anything from a candy bar to an mp3 player.

Even if carbon labels don’t immediately change consumer behavior, they can help pinpoint the origins of our energy use and emissions and could likely spur reductions. In the meantime, here are some fast facts about the food system’s impact on climate change, as well as some tips on how to reduce your own footprint. The information is courtesy of the Cool Foods Campaign, a project for the Center for Food Safety and the CornerStone Campaign. To learn more, visit coolfoodscampaign.org.

THE FOOD SYSTEM

Agriculture emits greenhouse gases through the production, packaging, and transport of pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals cause erosion and pollute water, two processes that also emit greenhouse gases. The machinery used on industrial farms—from tractors to irrigation systems—creates further greenhouse gases, as do livestock: Their waste is often stored in “manure lagoons” that emit methane. (Cattle, of course, also emit considerable amounts of methane in the digestive process). Finally, the grains that comprise the livestock diet have been refined by methods that are energy-intensive as well as polluting.

Once harvested, food is packaged and then transported an average of 1,500 miles, steps that further contribute to climate change.

PLAYING YOUR PART

The Cool Foods campaign’s “FoodPrint” reflects the total amount of greenhouse gases that have been created as a result of the growth, processing, packaging, and transportation of any given food. By making better choices, consumers can have significant impact. When seeking out the “coolest” foods, just ask yourself a few simple questions:

1. Is it organic?

Organic foods have been produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics. In addition to the emissions from fertilizer mentioned above, nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, is emitted when these chemicals are applied to farmland. Conventional fertilizers also pollute water sources, kill sea life, emit still more methane, and contribute to erosion, a process that creates carbon dioxide.

What you can do:
Buy “certified organic” by looking for the USDA organic label at your local market.

2. Does this product come from an animal?

Conventional meat is the No. 1 cause of global warming in our food system. Animals in industrial systems are sprayed with over two million pounds—and their cages are treated with another 360,000 pounds—of pesticide every year. They also ingest a whopping 84 percent of all antimicrobials (including antibiotics) used in the United States and half of all the grains grown in the country.

What you can do:
Limit your consumption of meat, dairy, and farmed seafood. Buy organic, local, and grass-fed meat and dairy, as they are produced without synthetic pesticides and herbicides and may use less fossil fuel. Look for seafood that is wild and local and whose stocks are not endangered.

3. Has it been processed?

Unlike fruits and vegetables, processed foods require the use of energy-intensive canning, freezing, drying, and packaging. Processed foods are usually sold in packages and containers listing their ingredients and tend to be found in the center aisles of grocery stores.

What you can do:
Try to do most of your shopping in the outside aisles of the supermarket, where produce and other whole foods are displayed. If you must by processed products, opt for “certified organic” whenever possible.

4. How far has it traveled to get here?

The transportation of food accounts for over 30,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year.

What you can do:
Buy local (or relatively local) if you can. Look for country-of-origin labels on whole foods and try to avoid products that come from the other side of the globe.

5. What sort of package does it come in?

Plastic packages are manufactured using oil and, as such, are responsible for creating over 24,000 tons of greenhouse gas every year.

What can you do?
Avoid excessive packaging by choosing whole foods: loose fruits and vegetables, as well as bulk cereals, pastas, grains, seeds, and nuts. And remember to bring along a reusable grocery bag.


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey there! I found your blog via Crunchy Chicken, first time here. Your post today was amazingly spookily perfect for me today---the things you discussed have been on my mind for days now...

Thanks for the great info!

Lucille (in CT)

Aimee said...

Hi Lucille! Glad it was timely! Have a great holiday.
aimee

AnyEdge said...

"When does sane, sober responsibility morph into crazy, obsessive behavior?"

Long, long ago. ;-)

Maven said...

Coffee, Bananas, Chocolate, Oranges, lemons, and limes, Avocados.

These items alone make it difficult, if not impossible for me to subscribe to the "100 Mile Diet."

I try to balance things a bit, by buying at farm stands May-November; eating grass-fed beef/lamb/chicken/free range eggs, if I can. I'm all for sustainable farming and organic foods, though up here in the northeast, it's quite difficult a good lot of the year.

I have scoped out a few farms within 100 miles of me who have pastured livestock, and I'll try to get to them one of these days (once we all thaw out).

Until or unless we live closer to the equator where all our favorite items we enjoy eating naturally grow, I think it's all a balancing act in the meantime.