Monday, April 5, 2010


I have a confession to make, and I'm not proud of it. Here it is: though I believe it's key to our survival as a species, I admit that I don't exclusively eat sustainable food.

I'm trying -- I really am! -- to eat food that I consider to be sustainable. That means many things. For one it means not a lot of meat: not no meat, just not a lot of it, and what meat I do eat I try to buy from local farms whose practices I can trust and whose products don't require additional fossil fuels to get to me.

In the growing season, which we're thankfully re-entering, I get just about all of my produce from farmers markets or other vendors with direct relationships to area farms that don't spray their crops with poison or take more out of the soil than they put back in. For the rest of the year, I eat out of my root "cellar" (hallway) and eat the occasional frozen, dried or canned local produce. Heck, I even forage a little here and there.

But I'm going to honest with you. I still go to restaurants and I still buy bananas in winter. Granted the 'naners are organic, but they're Big Organic, which plenty of people would say is not really organic. Sure Big Organic is technically organic by the rules set forth by the USDA, but it's no more in the spirit of true organic farming than the Monkees' "psychedelic" material was in the spirit of the 60's.

So that accounts for meat and veggies, but I don't mostly eat meat and veggies. Like everyone I mostly eat starches, like bread, rice, other grains and legumes. Unfortunately, starch is the hardest thing to find in my particular foodshed. So besides the rare bag of locally milled cornmeal, the bulk of my diet is being shipped from far, far away. And that means that people far, far away are directly suffering as a result of my actions.

The fossil fuels that are being pumped into the atmosphere so that I can eat pancakes are widening the holes in the ozone over places like Australia, where skin cancer rates may be higher than anywhere else in the world. Sorry, Australians.

The fact of the matter is that I just don't have the time or resources to eat in a completely sustainable manner. None of us do, unless you're rich or live in the Bay Area. But the important thing is to own that fact and to try to do something about it. Alternatively, you could shop at Whole Foods.

With stores like Whole Foods that sell some sustainable products and lots more non-sustainable products placed next to and packaged exactly like the sustainable products, you have to be careful. In the same way that a car with good gas mileage is still terrible for the environment, food that is only sustainable-ish (i.e. grown by Big Organics) but is not wholly sustainable is still a net drain. Remember, if something isn't sustainable, it means we can't keep doing it.

Is shopping at Whole Foods better than shopping at a "normal" grocery store? Depends. A pound of lentils at Stop n' Shop is probably better for everyone than a pound of New Zealand lamb from Whole Foods. Does Whole Foods do some things, like carrying local produce, right? Yes. But does shopping at Whole Foods lull you into a sense of complacency induced by their bounteous displays of produce and soothing, rounded, fonts? No doubt.

To be optimistic, let's think of Whole Foods as step on our path but by no means the destination. What we really need are more sustainable farms growing more kinds of food, more sustainable processors turning that corn into cornmeal, and more people turning it into sustainable hush puppies.

We are an extremely creative and capable species. Just look at how good we are at producing the cheapest goods possible without regard to the well being of the work force or health of the planet. I have no doubt that we can shift our priorities and solve the intertwined global food crisis and climate crisis.

May we then have a sustainable chicken in every sustainable pot and a bicycle in every garage, and vegetables growing on the roof of that garage.

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Jocelyn M. Berger said...

Yet another reason you SHOULD move to the Bay Area. Just drive a biodiesel car across the country and you'll be ready to go.

Karen said...

Don't be in such a hurry to move to the Bay Area so you can eat local grain - that grain is grown with someone else's water.

Every decision we make is fraught with conflict. No matter what calculator we use, there is another one that will give a different answer. We just have to make the best decisions we can and enjoy being alive.

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