Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Feasibility and Sustainabilty

In this blog post, I hope to evaluate just how sustainable my week of being vegetarian actually was. It seems to me that there are several tiers of eating sustainably, choosing a meatless diet is merely one of them. First though, let me define what I mean by eating sustainably. For me, it means making food choices that have minimal negative impact on the environment, factoring in all stages of production, distribution, and consumption. This is sustainability on the scale of the foodshed. The more I think about it though, I would say eating healthy would be sustainable on the scale of the human body. Obviously the human body cannot perpetuate indefinitely no matter how healthy the food you feed it. But I would say that healthier food is more sustainable for the body in that it maintains and improves its quality rather than degrading it, and helps lengthen the duration of its existence. I think though, that it’s going to get confusing trying to differentiate between sustainable for the body, and sustainable for the foodshed. So in this discussion, when I mean sustainable for the body, I’ll just call it “healthy” and sustainable for the foodshed will be referred to as “sustainable.”

There is no one solution to eating sustainably. It’s more of a long term project, a design strategy that is constantly being altered. I think that as far as our different sustainable diets (local, vegetarian, organic, and under $6) local is generally going to be the most sustainable, followed by organic, vegetarian, and then under $6. Obviously, someone could eat under $6 for every meal with absolutely zero consideration for sustainability. From there, I’m looking at these diets as, how would it change from a normal American diet where the consumer starts out with no considerations for sustainability whatsoever? As far as being vegetarian, there are several bonuses when you cut out meat. Assuming that like the average American this person was solely eating industrial meat, not eating beef lowers greenhouse gas emissions and saves water (it takes a lot more water to produce a ton of beef than a ton of grain). In theory, more vegetarians would mean less demand for beef and hopefully then less CAFOs, leaving the land available to return to its natural state – a positive for the environment. Regarding health, many studies point to industrial meat as a cause of heart disease and other health problems in America. Additionally, industrial cows are raised in unsanitary conditions within CAFOs; its not unlikely that the hamburgers they become are just as unsanitary, possibly harboring deadly E.Coli and containing antibiotics and chemicals (Food Inc.).

The hypothetical American is now vegetarian, but he’s getting more educated so he decides to start buying organically as well. Even if the organic food is coming from an industrial organic farm, the consumer is still supporting agriculture that does not pollute the land, air and water by using harmful pesticides. However, as seen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, large organic farms like Earthbound still have to send their vegetables through a factory system to pack them, and then ship the product all over the country, emitting pollutants along the way (Pollan, 166). Taking this step of buying organically is only slightly more sustainable I would say than being a normal vegetarian - however, an organic diet is worlds healthier. In Our Daily Bread, a documentary about industrial food in Germany, workers are shown in hazmat suits, spraying chemicals over every inch of the rows of vegetables grown inside a climactically controlled greenhouse. By choosing the organic product, the consumer is avoiding exposure to these chemicals (both for himself and for the workers), which in the long term can contribute to the development of cancer and other health problems.

Becoming a vegetarian and deciding to buy organic are steps that are easily taken in most developed areas. This is assuming a grocery store that offers organic products is available. I know even my local Kroger offers the Kroger-brand organic version of many products, so I hope I am right in assuming that organic products are available in a large part of the US. I would venture to guess that the availability of a variety of local goods is much less common. Besides in some select places in the US, deciding to buy local is probably not going to mean a complete overhaul of a normal diet – it’s likely this option won’t even be available. Buying local food depends a lot on climate and growing season. Some places in the US are not suited for agriculture, so finding a local farm could be literally impossible. A search for registered farmers’ markets on Localharvest.org came up with a listing of 4,584 in the entire US. Most of these are concentrated in the northeast, and in pockets on the coast of California. It looks like if you’re living in the middle of Utah, you’re out of luck when it comes to finding locally grown food. If local items are available though, purchasing these will definitely increase sustainability simply by cutting the emissions from transportation. Additionally, local food is generally grown on smaller farms, which tend to require less energy input from non-renewable sources such as oil and coal. Buying local products will more often than not also be healthier. The nutrient density of fruits and vegetables decreases with each day it has been picked off the plant. If you buy your food locally, you are probably getting it sooner and thus getting the maximum nutrients out of it.

After that lengthy explanation, my point is that my vegetarian diet over the week was probably more healthy for me than sustainable for the planet. However, it was far more sustainable than a typical American diet. Basically, what I tried to do throughout the week was work up through the tiers of local, organic, vegetarian. I went to the farmers’ market at the beginning of the week and got as many local products as I could, which consisted of various vegetables, apples, eggs, and bread. I then filled in with organics, getting the rest of my vegetables and snack foods from this category. When I couldn’t find (or couldn’t afford) local or organic, I just stuck with vegetarian items, such as cheese, juice, and bananas.

As far as emissions from transportation, I think I did great. I drove to Harris Teeter at the beginning of the week, and then the rest of my meals were accessed by walking or taking the trolley. That is, until I drove the 2 hours home to Roanoke….but the purpose of that wasn’t to pick up food, so I don’t think I need to factor it in. The one benefit of being in college is the ability to walk or take public transportation to almost everywhere you need to go – I could have even walked to the grocery store if I had felt so motivated.

Cost wise, my diet was no more expensive than buying a meal plan – actually, it was cheaper. A meal plan that offers enough to cover all a students dietary needs is $1890 for the semester, that’s $118.13 per week. For a week’s worth of food from the grocery store, I spend $50-$80. And food that I buy in a week usually carries over into the next week. Even factoring in $10-$20 spent on meals out each week, my vegetarian-organic-local hybrid diet is cheaper than getting a UVA meal plan. Obviously there was a bit more effort involved, but I think this proves that for the average student, cost should not be an excuse to eat unsustainably.

My week of eating sustainably not only made me feel better, both physically and mentally, but it was affordable and helped out the environment a bit too. I hope that any student interested in changing his eating habits can use this as one example of how to approach that goal. I know that I will continue refining and redesigning my diet as I gain more knowledge about the topic of the foodshed and sustainable agriculture in general.

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