Friday, November 6, 2009

DAY 4: A Sustainable Vegetarian?

So I’ve been questioning the sustainability of veggies vs. meat all week and today I finally got some concrete data! I’ll start with my diet for the day though, because it’s quite different than the other days.

College, I would say, is quite an unhealthy thing to do. It’s a good thing we go through it in the prime of life, or I don’t know if everyone would survive. During college, basic necessities of life are often pushed to the backburner for one of two reasons: socializing or homework. Sleeping, eating, and bathing all become second priorities, and often you have to choose maybe one or two out of the three. For me, homework won today. Sleeping and eating (I did bathe) were something I would get to do if I was lucky. I woke up after not enough sleep, finished an assignment due at 12:30, and then raced off to STS class, my Odwalla Berries GoMega beverage in hand. It’s not that I wasn’t going to eat today, just that eating a proper diet (something that’s usually relatively high on my agenda) was not as important. I did manage to stick to my vegetarian diet, however, vegan would have been very difficult. The fact that I ran out the door without eating breakfast was really weird for me – I literally never do that. Thankfully I had the Odwalla smoothie on hand – easy to take on the go. And a second blessing that it was made with organic fruits, lacking GMOs, and packed with Omega-3s and flaxseed!.....(that was sarcasm just there if you didn’t catch it). Sustainable? Probably not. All that fruit had to be mashed and pureed in some factory and then pumped with healthy additives. As we just talked about in class, though, the packaging is packed (although not as much as Honest Tea) with symbols suggesting the healthiness and myriad connections to nature this drink has. Check out their website: Did you see the happy flowers and butterflies dancing across the screen in the opening segment?

The rest of my diet today consisted of things I could throw together quickly – an almond butter/banana sandwich, for brunch I guess it would be?, a cheese sandwich at afternoon tea (eating times often get a bit skewed in college as well) and yogurt and granola for dinner. Basically when I don’t have time I just end up eating a lot of carbs, which until today I assumed was just as sustainable as eating vegetables. Good thing I stayed awake and made it to class. In Building and Climate, we talked about a book written by this architect Behnisch (who’s actually coming to give a lecture next week – should be pretty cool), entitled Ecology, Design, Synergy. The book opens with an energy consumption timeline, beginning with Limits to Growth in 1972 and going through the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It goes on to provide a list of “fun facts” basically about how we’re destroying the planet. Two that I noted were as follows:
1. To transport 1lb of asparagus from Chile to NY takes 1.5lbs of fossil fuel energy and releases 4.2lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
2. To raise...1kg beef – 300m2 of land, 1kg bread or rice - 17m2, 1 kg veggies – 6m2
Looking at it now, I wonder if he got the first data point from Pollan, or if that’s just an odd coincidence that they both thought about imported asparagus? Anyway, the point is that whether or not that asparagus is organic, it is releasing pollutants into the atmosphere which are probably based largely on the long transport, thus rendering it less sustainable (or at least worse for the climate) than buying local asparagus from the farmer’s market. Additionally, the increased amount of land needed to produce bread vs. an equivalent amount of vegetables makes me feel that the vegetables would then be more sustainable. How does that follow? Well, the more land area you need to produce one unit of food means that you can produce less total units (assuming you have a fixed amount of land), and as we are currently in a global food crisis, we need to produce the greatest amount of food on the least amount of land. Or if you increase the land area to produce more units that means you are increasing the amount of watering, fertilizing, etc. needed to care for that land, and thus increasing emissions (bad for climate change). Now, I am certainly not suggesting that we should all only eat vegetables, and cut meat and bread out of our diets because they take more land and resources to grow. I guess I just think it’s important to be aware of this data, so that if you are actually concerned about the “greenness” of your diet, you know where you can make some changes that are actually helpful to the planet. And I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt me at all to eat a few more vegetables and a few less slices of bread.

But, you still have to be careful even about vegetables. Reading Chapter 9 about Industrial Organic farms if The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I found this interesting piece of data: Producing one box of organic salad uses 4600 calories of fossil fuel energy, and provides only 80 calories of food energy (that’s 57 cals of fossil fuel energy per every food cal) (Pollan, 167). I’m not really clear how fossil fuel calories compare to food calories, but basically that doesn’t sound good.

So going vegetarian we now know is a good start to implementing a diet that’s better for the planet, but when do you buy organic? Local? Conventional? That I am still not sure of.

-Elizabeth, the vegetarian dieter

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