What Shall We Then Eat? (Part 3)

A while back, I posted a couple of blogs about eating responsibly—“What Should We Then Eat?” (Part 1 was about eating to be healthy, and Part 2 was about eating with the environment in mind.) Today, I’d finally like to finish this mini-series with “Part 3: Eating with a Social Conscience.”

Here in the U.S., it’s easy to forget that our food choices have a global impact. A quick trip through the market can remind us. There are bananas from central America, coffee from Kenya, and apples from Australia. Tropical species (such as chocolate) have to be imported. Out of season produce is grown in the southern hemisphere and flown north so we can eat oranges all summer and grapes all winter. All in all, when it comes to food choices, we’re pretty spoiled.

Since so much of what we eat is grown so far away, it’s also easy to be oblivious to the people who do the growing. As we sip our steaming cup of chai, how often do we think about the working conditions on the tea plantation? How much are they paid? Is it a living wage? Are these farm workers subjected to dangerous chemicals? Some pesticides that are banned in the US are still widely used elsewhere.

I expect everyone cares about social justice, but who has the time to do all the research needed to make sure they aren’t exploiting workers here, much less in other countries?

And that’s just the people. How about the livestock? Are the animals we eat treated as humanely as possible before they arrive—coated with special sauce and adorned with lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions—on a toasted sesame bun? I’m not about to become a vegan, but I do accept responsibility for the animals whose meat I enjoy.

There are no easy solutions for the person who cares about such things, but there are a few places to begin. One step is to eat as locally as possible. I mentioned this in my previous blogs, as it saves on fossil fuels used to ship food long distances while delivering produce at its freshest. But another reason to look for nearby farms and ranches is that you can see firsthand how the operation is run.

We can also, to varying degrees, grow some or all of our own food. I’ve had a vegetable garden for most of the last 30 years. Some summers we harvest an abundance. Other times, late frosts, hail, grasshoppers and pocket gophers combine to send me to the farmer’s market. If you’d like to try your hand at growing some beans and tomatoes, check out my other blog, Mountain Plover. I have lots of suggestions to get you started.

I live in Colorado, and there are only a few commercial crops that can withstand our poor soils and extreme climate. We’d have a very poor diet if we were limited to what grows nearby. That’s why I was so glad to learn about the Fair Trade movement.

For a company to earn a Fair Trade label, they have to meet certain criteria. Wikipedia lists nine principles by which all fair trade abides: “create opportunities for marginalized producers, develop transparent relationships, build capacity, promote fair trade, pay promptly and fairly, support empowering working conditions, ensure children’s rights, cultivate environmental stewardship, and respect cultural identity.” That’s a pretty tall order.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sam’s Club is now carrying Fair Trade coffee, and at a very reasonable price. (Fair Trade certified products often cost more.) Some of the other foods and goods that are available with this certification include banana, chocolate, tea, sugar, and cotton.

If you want to learn more about the history and political controversies (aren’t there always political controversies?) surrounding the Fair Trade movement, I recommend the Wikipedia article, which actually seems fairly balanced and well referenced.

Eating responsibly usually entails a financial commitment. Organic produce, fair trade goods, healthy food choices—they all tend to cost more than mass-produced, preservative-laden junk food. It helps to remember that there are hidden costs as well. Eating high fat and sugar foods leads to health problems. Spraying chemicals damages the environment. Exploiting agricultural workers sears our consciences and makes God rather unhappy. When we consider the whole picture, our decisions seem less like sacrifices.

I’m sure there are other factors to consider when choosing what to put in our mouths. There are always trade-offs. How do you decide what to buy at the market? Have you altered your eating habits to take issues such as these into account? What other options do you know about? Do you have any advice for the rest of us?

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