It seems the world is full of ambitious, empathetic individuals anxious to do their part for the environmental cause. Indeed, cloth bags, cycling, compostable utensils and organic foods have become downright trendy. Yet, the scene of conservation good-doing has become fraught with so much contradiction and misinformation it can be maddening. More frighteningly, it often leads to apathy, and perpetuates the idea that an individual alone can't make a difference, so why bother?
It's important to keep a positive perspective. While one alone may not heroically sweep the planet to safety, their efforts, however minimal, do make a difference. Most importantly, it sets an example and proliferates the right attitude. If the majority reaches environmental enlightenment, then perhaps the tangible impacts, changes in legislation, and shifts in global priorities may truly come to fruition.
While confusion spans many aspects of conservation, perhaps the most baffling regards what we eat. Food is such a pivotal aspect of life, and comes with myriad cultural, emotional, physiological and environmental attachments. What's more, the markets are increasingly stocked with foods bearing labels such as "all natural," "organic," "local," and "fair-trade," which all have multiple definitions that are used haphazardly. So, how to keep your head above water when you're drowning in such muddled waters?
When it comes to food, your personal priorities are the most important thing. Health, aesthetics, carbon outputs, land clearing, empowerment of third-world locals, and budget are just some of the different factors that can determine what you buy. Having priorities helps simplify matters such as should I buy organic from South America, or should I purchase non-organic local products? Should I forgo the organic bananas that are wrapped in plastic in favor of loose non-organic ones? Even if the health impacts are negligible, should I spend extra on organic anyway? These questions are just the tip of the melting iceberg.
So here's a breakdown of pros and cons of different foods to help determine what is most important to you:
Organic: Food production that refrains from synthetic chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, medication in animals)
Synthetic fertilizer and pesticide inputs are eliminated – chemicals associated with contaminating water, salinization of soil, ecological distress and wildlife mortality
Associated with health benefits, especially with permeable produce (berries, greens) which retain chemical residues
Associated with "better taste"
2 Linked to promoting an environmentally conscience lifestyle
Often grown in developing countries, so can be environmentally costly to produce and transport
(Often) more expensive
Third-world growers not necessarily benefited despite the increased price
Associated with continued land clearing in South America and Asia
Local: Difficult to define – depending on region, community, connectedness
Shortens supply chains and makes food production more transparent
Linked to an enhanced consumer-producer relationship that encourages more environmentally sustainable production
Supports local economies, which helps further promote local eating
Often less expensive, depending on region and season
Reduce carbon miles – the carbon-dioxide outputs associated with food transportation
Can help promote seasonal eating
Not necessarily organic, so may still use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
Depending on region, may not significantly reduce carbon outputs
May encourage agriculture development or greenhouse crops in regions otherwise not used for crops
Carbon emissions more linked to types of food consumed than food transport – so carbon offsets not always positive
Fairtrade: Products that are grown with the intention of empowering local growers
(often in the southern hemisphere)
Products claiming to be free from genetically modified organisms are almost as commonplace as those without gluten these days. GMOs are conflicting, as their use has been an immense benefit for many people. Engineered golden rice gives millions of people access to essential nutrients. And the modification of plants to forms that necessitate less fertilizer, are naturally pest resistant, and consume less water sound great, right? In fact, GMO foods have not been linked to environmental or health risks. But the concern is more about unintentional spread of modified genes, as well as the potential ramifications that have yet to be detected. There are also ethical, economic and legal issues to be considered. Additionally, large corporations that contribute to economic disparities and global food distribution often control GMO patents. However, GMOs have provided the potential for crops in areas otherwise unsuitable, such as many part of arid Africa. This expansion of agriculture naturally comes with its own host of pros and cons, but does provide job opportunities to many poor regions. It should also be noted that while GMO crops face heavy backlash, pharmaceuticals with recombinant DNA are flourishing in the market, and receive very little attention from concerned consumers. The benefits and risks of GMOs all depend on your perspective and your risk aversion, so use your own discretion when purchasing.
Anyone endeavoring to read this blog already knows that plastic is something to be avoided. Unfortunately, food suppliers don't always see the same light, and you often find your organic foods wrapped in plastic, or even worst, sitting in a Styrofoam tray, entombed in plastic. Sometimes you are forced to outweigh the pros of your chosen good over the cons of their packaging. Just to help tip the scales, here are issues found with plastics:
Degrades slowly (decades)
Made from petroleum and consumes 8% of annual global oil production
Over a third of plastic produced is used in packaging that is then discarded
Relatively little recycled or turned to energy because of contamination from
other types of plastics, ink, paper etc.
Most plastic in food use are low-density polyethylene plastics which are
more difficult to recycle
Linked to hefty marine pollution and ecosystem degradation
Leaches chemicals (phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA)) into the environment which are known endocrine disrupters in animals and interfere with reproductive organs, insulin production, and thyroid hormones
Despite its many flaws, there is good news for plastic! Rapidly evolving technologies seek to convert plastic that has already been produced and discarded into fuel. The enormous amount of plastics in our landfills and oceans could contribute significantly to oil demands if repurposed as energy. It's a step in the right direction. Or at least towards cleaning our oceans. But let's avoid if we can, shall we?
Products that contain palm oil have become ubiquitous. This sneaky ingredient has found its way into everything from Nutella to soap. The problem with palm oil is the massive environmental cost associated with its production, as will be outlined here. Many of the issues associated with palm oil are associated more with the clearance of land and the planting of monoculture crops, which can be said of most plantation enterprises. However, palm oil production has increased at such an alarming and unnecessary rate, for unjustifiable reasons. Avoid this beast if at all possible.
Drives forest clearance in Southeast Asia
Contributes to habitat fragmentation
Contributes to pollution, and amplifies greenhouse gas emissions
Lowers biodiversity of both plants and animals
Causes soil erosion and subsequently increases sediment loads in water
Drives up food prices
Mostly grown to create a "carbon neutral" biofuel, but actually creates a carbon-source in forests that were previously carbon sinks
This term is rather self-explanatory, but a huge push for environmentally conscientious eaters is towards seasonal produce. That is to say, consuming produce that naturally grows in your area at the given time of year. Unfortunately, we have all become accustomed to tomatoes, strawberries and bananas at all times of the year, and find it difficult to fathom many months without them. For sure, certain months will be bleaker than others, but buying according to regional seasonality promotes local eating, while also discouraging globalized food production, reducing carbon miles, and disincentivizing further land clearing in third-world countries that contribute disproportionately to a-seasonal exports.
A lot of this post has hinted at carbon miles. While reducing the transport of food globally is an important step, studies suggest that dietary preferences actually have a greater impact on greenhouse emissions than food miles. Red meat has an estimated 150% higher carbon emissions in terms of production than other meats, such as chicken. Switching out red meat for less impact meats, or going vegetarian for a night every week can have more impact on greenhouse gas emissions than sourcing all of your food locally. The issues with global food networks span more than greenhouse gas emissions, and encompass so much more than emissions (economic and social disparity, food quality, land clearing and fragmentation, etc), and should still be considered when purchasing food. However, avoiding red meat as much as possible is a huge leap towards lowering your personal carbon footprint.
While this post is far from comprehensive, hopefully the outline will help you combat the consumer confusion and purchase with more clarity. No matter what you choose, here's to happy eating!
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