Standing in front of the open refrigerator door, you survey the contents. What do you want to snack on? In today’s globalized world, this is a complicated question. In April I commented about our nutritional choices. Today I’m more interested in the environmental repercussions.
How is the food grown? What fertilizers are used? Are the plants sprayed with pesticides? And are organic growing methods automatically better? How about the use of fossil fuels to transport food over long distances? Or the energy and other resources used in processing, preserving, and packaging those convenience products? If you believe all the hype, you could be convinced that an environmental apocalypse is just around the corner, all because of our food choices.
Yes, our methods of food production are a matter of concern, and rightly so. But in an industry this complicated, how do we know which are the best options? If we have the time, we can research the source of every food item we consume. Most of us don’t have the luxury of doing that, so I prefer to rely on a few principles that help me make decisions when I’m at the market or veggie stand.
There’s a growing movement in this country to eat locally. That is, we should choose food that was produced nearby, rather than spending dollars on grapes from Chile or apples from Australia. Depending on which part of the country you live in, “local” can mean 100 miles or less, or at least no further than the neighboring states. Not much is grown in our part of Colorado, for instance, but I do my best to buy corn from Kansas rather than California or Florida.
Connected to this principle is the advantage of buying produce in season. We’ve become accustomed to the year-long availability of most crops, but this is possibly only because food is shipped in from other areas. Relearn the rhythm of the seasons. Eat apples in the fall and peaches in the summer. It’s called “winter squash” for a reason—butternut and other hard-shelled squashes store well for later consumption. And who really enjoys out-of-season tomatoes that taste like Styrofoam?
Take advantage of the farmers’ markets in your area, or join a farm-to-family co-op. Or even better, grow your own food, and cancel your gym membership for the summer. My other blog has a lot of advice on veggie gardening.
Many people become vegetarians or vegans because of the large amount of resources used to grow meat. Much land devoted to animal feed production could be put to better use growing crops directly for human consumption. I personally believe we should cut way down on the amount of meat, especially beef, that we eat. However, living in Colorado has helped me realize that cattle can live on rangeland totally unsuitable for growing food crops. Now if we could just stop feeding corn to our cows, we’d have healthier animals and healthier people. (If you want to learn more about corn and livestock, read Michael Pollan’s fascinating book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)
Go ahead and buy organic produce if you can afford it. Even better, look for “sustainably grown” crops. Aside from any pesticide residue, organic farming methods are better for the land. (Even organic food may be sprayed with pesticides. The only requirement is that they be naturally derived rather than chemically synthesized. Some, such as pyrethrin, are extremely toxic.)
In organic farming, the soil is renewed and enriched, rather than depleted. Growers do their best to take advantage of natural pest controls. And organic fertilizers are renewable, rather than petroleum-based. (In some cases, manure from animal sources is used to grow food crops, when it would otherwise accumulate, polluting groundwater and causing a big stink.) However, some studies in Europe have shown that organic meat, especially poultry, is higher in bacteria than conventionally raised meat, so there are clearly trade-offs.
Even organic farmers can cause environmental damage. No matter its source, excess nitrogen can pollute waterways, while inappropriate tillage erodes topsoil. Placing farms in marginal growing areas can also cause problems. For example, irrigating the Imperial Valley of far southern California allowed warm season crops to be grown during the winter. However, all the irrigation water evaporates in the desert, leaving salts to accumulate in the soil. Eventually, the soil will be too salty to support most plants.
Even better than “organic” is “sustainable agriculture.” This means that the methods used to grow food are good for the long run. Rather than adhering to a set of do’s and don’ts mandated by law, these farms rely on ecologically sound principles that can be maintained indefinitely.
Finally, consider what form your food comes in. Consider buying ingredients, rather than ready-to-eat meals. Usually, fruit and vegetables from the produce department, raw meat from the meat counter, and bread from the store bakery consume the least amount of energy in the form of processing and packaging. Look for bins of staples, where you can scoop out what you need into a thin plastic bag. Yes, you’ll have to cook. Try it, it’s fun. (At least most fruit can be eaten straight from the bin!)
With all this conscience-assuaging advice, try to remember that life should be balanced. Eat this way most of the time, and you’ll enjoy your occasional splurge all the more. It’s OK to have an imported banana once in a while. More to the point, chocolate doesn’t grow in Colorado; it’s clear that exceptions must be made. After all, God tells that we should enjoy “… foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving…. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:3-4).