Wednesday, January 13, 2010

You Are What You Eat



Below is another report that Brooke Rose and I did for our Environment and Human Impact class. This project was something that we were both really passionate about...food. It was fun to research, interview, and piece together this paper. Hope you enjoy!

The way humans eat today has evolved greatly over the past 200 years. As our world has become more industrialized, so has our daily meal plan. As globalization has become more of an economic reality so have our food sources. Unfortunately, the negative environmental impacts of the way we eat today are undeniable and terrifying. The current food system threatens biodiversity, relies on non-renewable energy sources, does not embrace nutrient cycling as well as it could for our own benefit and isn’t built to support a global population that is growing faster than ever. There is a growing shift in the mindset of shoppers today, however, to abandon the unsustainable ways we’ve become accustomed to. Resources for the wise consumer are in abundance, but it is still up to the consumer to demand the sustainable choices. In the following report, we examine the resources available to us, the consumer, and we provide the solutions to the environmental problems our current food system has created. Our investigation reveals the true cost of readily available, cheap food on the worldwide and local scale, the options available to local consumers, the exciting things being done to support the market shift and some fun ways to change habits and lifestyles so the next generation can make more sustainable choices.

I. What’s the beef?

The way most of us get our food today is environmentally unsustainable. Disobeying all four of the scientific principles of sustainability, our industrialized meal plan is a recipe for destruction of the environment and ourselves. From where and the way it is produced to how it is distributed, there is growing cause for concern for our well-being as human beings if we don’t change our current habits immediately. Because of our dependency on cheap, pre-packaged, high-protein, nutrient-depleted meals, we could lose much of our current landscape around the world and our biodiversity, which sustains our ecosystem as we know it. We are quickly depleting our non-renewable resources in the current system, meanwhile increasing our greenhouse gas emissions, a cause of global warming. We are eating more and paying less than generations past, but the nutrient concentration of our food is much lower. While we move further away from raw foods, the highest in nutrient concentration, we also lower the demand for diversity in our food systems, perpetuating our losses.

A. Threats to biodiversity

Industrialized agriculture threatens our biodiversity. Tropical forests, one of our most diverse ecosystems, are being cleared in the Amazon for soybean cropland, to grow cattle feed, and to grow sugarcane for ethanol. Not only are we losing species by ripping their rich ecosystems away from them to grow crop, but our food is less diverse than it used to be. In other words, our agriculture biodiversity is depleting. Through the industrialization of agriculture, we have lost 75 percent of agriculture crops in the past 100 years, and 97 percent of available plant food varieties in seventy years. The reason this is cause for concern is through genetically engineered “super-crops” we’re limiting the varieties that have survived the test of time. While we limit these varieties, we limit their available genetic diversity that has supplied us with resilient crops for centuries. In the diverse cropland, one trait of a crop suffers in one harvest but succeeds a different year, potentially saving the farmer despite being viewed as a weak trait in past harvests. We’re limiting our food source’s ability to adapt to environmental changes, and limiting our resources. Meanwhile, the global landscape is changing faster than ever before and our climate is warming, potentially calling for more of a need for that diversity than we’ve ever known. Another threat posed by our mono-culture crop system is its resilience to pests. We disrupt the entire ecosystem that naturally builds itself up against pests. This grossly throws off the natural solution to population control and leads to heavier reliance on pesticides. The heavy use of pesticides doesn’t go unnoticed, as the first rule of ecology demands. ( Miller, p. 291)

B. High energy consumption

Industrialized food production has an extremely high demand for energy. Seventeen percent of the commercial energy used in the United States today goes to food production. What’s encouraging about this statistic is that there are age-old solutions that are readily available. Since the time our ancestors produced food, the net energy loss and demand for food creation has risen drastically. So although we have an efficient production system that allows us greater choices and the ability to eat more, we give way more than we get in our current food production process. “…About 10 units of nonrenewable fossil fuel energy are needed to put one unit of food energy on the table.” In traditional farming methods that depended on human labor, those numbers were in the reverse. (Miller, p. 290)

C. Enormous creator of pollutants

We are eating more meat than ever before. The massive amounts of waste created by feedlots emit greenhouse gases. A feedlot with 1000 head of cattle can produce up to 280 tons of manure a week. The amount of cropland necessary to maintain the diets of the animals we raise for consumption is also massive and requires heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. The water runoff from the fertilizers used on those croplands is responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, where marine life cannot survive because of the lack of oxygen. The industrialized meat industry accounts for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases emissions—more than the transportation industry. (Miller p. 292) In other words, beef is the beef, at least to an extent.

Although there are some benefits to the environment the way we mass produce our food, the risks we run by sticking to the current system outweigh the benefits. The US population is expected to grow to 438 million people by 2050 and to 571 million by 2100 (Miller, p. 127). The problems caused by our current food production system will only grow and we will continue to lose unless we make drastic changes now. Luckily, human beings are crafty and resourceful and solutions to the problems are already underway. In the following paragraphs, we dive into the solutions on the grassroots and global scale.

II. Buying back biodiversity for breakfast

Farmers on the forefront of change in America aren’t ignorant to the limited variety of seeds available at an affordable price. India’s current rice production revolves around 10 varieties, a far cry from the 30,000 it once boasted. (Miller, p. 292) The mono-culture crop problem is perhaps more dire in the US mainstream food market, as we saw in King Corn. In 1996, when Monsato began selling the Roundup Ready soybeans, only two percent of soybeans in the US contained their patented gene. By 2008, over 90 percent of the US soybean crop contained the gene. (Food, Inc.) Corn, described as king on the American farm, and it the prime example of the mono-culture crop. In the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen addresses this evolution and its harmful effects in detail.

Shaw Family Farms in Truckee is a family-run farm that was started after Barb and John Shaw read Pollan’s groundbreaking expose. They felt compelled to a part of the movement for better options for the American meal plan. Providing a variety of fresh produce to Truckee shoppers at the farmers market, they use no synthetic fertilizers insecticides, herbicides, or any other chemicals and they buy their seeds from Seed Savers Exchange.

A brief description of the seed company is best derived from their website, “Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. Our loyal SSE members have distributed an estimated 1 million samples of rare garden seeds since our founding nearly 35 years ago. Those seeds now are widely used by seed companies, small farmers supplying local and regional markets, chefs and home gardeners and cooks, alike….“Today, the 890-acre Heritage Farm, Decorah, Iowa, is our home -- and Seed Savers Exchange is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. We permanently maintain more than 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties, most having been brought to North America by members' ancestors who immigrated from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and other parts of the world. Unlike Fort Knox, Heritage Farm is not surrounded by security fences and guards. Our perimeter is patrolled by Bald Eagles, red-tailed hawks, deer, raccoons and other wildlife. The farm is ringed by 8.5 miles of hiking trails that take visitors through majestic scenery, past some of our 23 acres of certified organic preservation gardens, historic orchard and ancient White Park Cattle.” (Seed Savers Exchange)

Both, Seed Savers Exchange and the Shaw Family Farms are shining examples that education changes hearts, minds and pushes us to take action. Understanding that we can support farmers that support biodiversity is a huge step in the right direction. That being said, the consumer holds the power to breathe more life into people with similar missions. Educating the consumers becomes essential. Heirloom produce literally means original seeds that have been handed down and not crossed. Therefore, buying heirloom tomatoes and other available heirloom produce is a small change anyone can make during their every day grocery trips to help change the face of the American food market. Without the support, these farmers will go belly-up and we’ll be back to where we started.

On a more global, national and state scale, the average consumer can fight the battle for biodiversity by voting on measures that limit genetically modified food production, or GMOs, or that protect biodiversity. People can also show their support for the efforts to save endangered seeds by getting involved or making donations to the grassroots efforts aimed at saving ancient seeds from extinction. For example, the farmers teamed up worldwide to save 100,000 varieties of food crops. Some of the nearly extinct seeds are varieties of such common plants as barley, rice and wheat, all staples we rely on. Planting the seeds of awareness can be just as fruitful as the seeds themselves. If we do not do this, we run the risk of losing some long-living plant products all together. (California Green Solutions)

III. Pound for pound: Going global or a growing grain?

It’s hard to imagine a road trip without miles of cleanly marked and plowed farmland along the way. It’s hard to imagine the bulldozing, plowing, seeding, watering and harvesting was once done without heavy equipment and by the labor of love, or of man. Along with the conveniences of technology, came the byproducts of mass product. It takes diesel and fuel to run the equipment to make the miles of farmlands work. It then takes millions of miles of road and more fuel and heavy equipment to get the mass product to the mass market. In order to deliver the product to the market, it must be packaged which takes even more fuel and energy.

As stated above, the input of energy per pound of food strongly outweighs the energy we get from that food. So how can we reconnect this disconnect? Let’s start at the local level. In Northern California, we are some of the luckiest purchasers on the planet when it comes to availability, progressive food markets and product availability. If with great privilege, comes great responsibility then we owe it to the rest of the world to declare war on the mainstream food system. We can do this locally easier than almost anyone else. Moody’s, Burger Me, Java Hut, The Lodge at Tahoe Donner, Shaw Family Farms, Sierra Valley Farms, New Moon, farmers markets, CSA programs and Safeway’s organic produce section are just a highlighted few of the food vendors who share that same vision. That means they buy from local farmers and vendors and encourage their customers to do the same. The closer to home your food is grown, the fewer miles it spends on the road to get to your table, the less fuel it demands per pound, and depending on how you buy, the less packaging it will take. Therefore, the consumer gets more bang for their buck, even if a lot of that bang isn’t a personally-involved process. If the environmental savings are considered, the potentially slightly pricier local option is always the more cost-effective choice.

The buck doesn’t stop there. An ideal shift is to buy directly from the local farmers and cut out the middle man altogether. Joining a CSA program allows you to buy directly from a small local farmer. That will promote seasonal produce purchasing and limit the demand for imported, unseasonable produce. Learning about which foods grow during which seasons and planning meals around them can drastically change our landscape. We’ve been spoiled by the availability of all foods year-round. Returning to our ancestor’s necessity-based seasonal meal plans can be fun and is environmentally responsible. There are an estimated 47,000 products on the shelves of the average American supermarket. This availability and choice has created a major shift in the human diet. (Food, Inc.)

Although every facet of the solution to this high-energy consumption problem involves a more local focus, there are movements on a global scale aimed to change the mindset of the masses. The slow food movement, for example, is aimed at the rebirth of local farmers, local meal plans and seeing your food come full-circle from seed to harvest to the dinner table.

Another point to be made here is that our ancestors didn’t eat nearly as much as we do today because meat wasn’t as readily available. In the documentary, Food, Inc., it’s stated that the average American eats 200 pounds of meat per year. Since, as stated above, the industrialized meat industry is responsible for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., simply eating less meat is another simple solution for the average consumer to promote a more environmentally responsible industry through purchasing power. From steer to slaughterhouse, a cow requires 75 gallons of oil. (Food, Inc.) Since the same principles of mass product apply here, it’s also important for the environmentally responsible consumer to buy their meat from local vendors and buy grass-fed beef. The environmental benefits of grass-fed cattle and the ranches that raise them are numerous, as outlined in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and several other resources listed. Local providers include the Shaw Family Farm and Sierra Valley Farms. Only one percent of America’s cattle ranches are organic. If you buy a steak at the Lodge at Tahoe Donner where Chef Lou Orlady orders meat from Niman Ranch, you will be supporting organic, grass-fed beef as well, without having to hunt down a local rancher. The options are all around us.

IV. Creating compost

By trusting the first rule of ecology, none of the above solutions listed would stand alone. By buying from local farmers, eating less meat and buying only grass-fed beef, abiding by the principles of the slow food movement and promoting biodiversity in our crop yields, we would drastically decrease the amount of pollution the food industry currently creates. There are more resources and solutions to problems not listed in this paper that can create a greener food system. The rules of matter indicate that we never throw anything away. We can further our mission to create an environmentally sustainable food system by using our unused food matter to help our gardens grow. Composting is another local solution where the average consumer can take action. That leads to another solution, building a garden. An herb garden in a window sill is an easy first step. We still lead the busy lives that led to our “Fast Food Nation” in the first place, so supporting the local farmers is the best alternative to growing your own food.

To further that note, the progress being made is also flawed. The label ‘organic’ is so open for interpretation that it can hardly be trusted. The USDA allows 245 non-organic ingredients under the “organic” label. When you want to search for a responsible farm, be sure that no synthetic pesticides or chemicals are being used. Hormone free, veggie-fed, heirloom, and pesticide free are much more meaningful labels. Organic food is described as “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” (Zevnik, p.1) The organic philosophy is something to be upheld. This brings us to weigh in on the debate between local or organic. Although ideally, you are buying from a local organic farmer, both options are not always available. Since the purchaser’s health and finances are up for debate, this will always be a matter of personal priority however we say it’s better to buy local if you have to choose. Lessening the greenhouse gas emissions and the mass produced food as a whole outweighs a nearby farmer who can’t be labeled as organic but does many things responsibly. That being said, it’s good to know your food source. Ask the questions and find the answers about how they run their farm and if they use pesticides, what product are they using and why. It’s up to the consumer to educate themselves about the food they eat, as with everything else in life. That being said, with all this hard work, the seemingly uphill battle now will save us from having to climb a mountain of rubble later.

V. No dessert before dinner

Although all of the solutions presented here are exciting because the tools we need to shift from our environmentally unsustainable food system to an environmentally sustainable one are available, our research has taught us that we are only at the tip of the iceberg. The responsible vendors are all around us but they’re still the extreme minority. It’s not a time to get lazy and let the change happen. We, the consumer, need to be proactive now so future generations won’t have to clean up more of a mess than we’ve already created. We both feel passionately about diving into the fight for a better fed nation and, although we consider ourselves well-informed and an above-average consumer when it comes to being environmentally conscientious, we both realized how far we have to go in our own lives. Since change starts with the individual, we’re taking action and staying positive instead of feeling bogged down by the overwhelming majority of unsustainable food sources. Our passionate belief in these values still is a far cry from they way we conduct our lives every day. We are far from perfect and have some serious work to move forward. Education is the first step.

A common argument against the organic movement is price. Today, the average American spends less than ten percent of his or her income on food. That’s down from 18 percent in 1966. Those savings are directly linked to the mass production and use of corn in all of our food. The high levels of corn often mean low levels of nutrients and high levels of chemicals. Since 1966, we also have much higher levels of obesity and diabetes. So, the argument in response is: What would you rather do, hold down your small percentage on your grocery bill now and pay through health care and poor health later? Or, spend a little extra now and save your health and well being in the long run? The more attractive choice is to spend now, not to mention more environmentally sustainable.

Inspired by the Shaw family and everyone else we’ve studied in this project, we each have vowed to take some personal initiative to incorporate more sustainable eating and buying into their own lives. Michelle lives in a house with six people. She recently started a compost pile and is now learning the ins and outs of making it work in her home. She’s started an herb garden in her window and is looking for ways to shift her household to a responsible purchasing party in every other way. Brooke loves steak but became a vegetarian two years ago in light of the environmental impact the meat industry has. After this project, she will cut out dairy and make an acute effort to plan meals around seasonal produce. We both will continue in our efforts to educate our circles about the importance of supporting biodiversity in agriculture, the slow food movement, and buying locally.

We chose this topic because it was something we both would like to improve on a local and personal scale. The self-ridden guilt of not being a perfect purchaser is hard to handle and we were on a mission to find ways to improve our knowledge of the subject and the market. There is a mountain of information out there, but we needed to construct a better way to sift through it. This project has allowed us to realize that first comes education then comes action. The Shaw Family Farms, Seed Savers Exchange, and all of the other sources that were particularly inspiring help us realize that understanding how to better ourselves is a constant work in progress but it takes patience and constant personal responsibility. We have to be willing to take a second look at the way we shop, eat and order, but more importantly take a second look at ourselves and our priorities. Habits are hard to change, but a world without a sustainable environment is much harder to live in. The tools are there, now it’s time to use them.

1 comment:

Amy said...

This is great Michelle, I'm really enjoying hearing about food issues from another person my age it is refreshing! Keep it up and maybe I'll see you on Gary's farm this summer...