Those of you who know me personally as well as through this blog probably know that I have been on somewhat of a crusade over the past 14 months to improve my overall health. A big part of this involved losing a lot of weight, but the avenues I used to do this were also focused on improving my overall health: exercising more and really seriously reevaluating the food choices I was making. This second part is where sustainability comes in. As I’ve worked hard to educate myself on the most healthful strategies for eating in today’s supersized, convenience driven, food culture I have become increasingly disgusted and appalled at the quality (or lack thereof) of the food most of us consume on a regular basis and the extremely damaging effects what passes as a standard “western diet” is having on our bodies and our planet. I am by no means an expert on the sustainability issues that surround our food supply, in fact, I probably know just enough to be dangerous, but I did want to at least bring some of the issues I found particularly disturbing to you attention:
Nutrition and Health
Today’s supermarket fare is often highly processed and lacking nutrients found in whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Many processed foods add vitamins and minerals to try to combat this problem, but in many cases our bodies may not be able to absorb these additives as easily as if they were naturally occurring. Additionally, many of the preservatives, sweeteners and artificial flavors added to these foods have been linked to causing everything from cancer to hormone imbalances to sugar addiction. My main strategy for improving the nutrition of my own food it to opt for the least-processed option available and when resorting to a processed item to look for the option that has the fewest listed ingredients and I preferably know how to pronounce all of them. So, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fresh meats, you get the picture… I won’t even get into how processed food is contributing to the obesity epidemic, but the number of calories that are often presented in processed foods with very little ability for that food to satiate appetite can be staggering.
Factory Farming/Livestock Conditions
The family farm has largely been replaced by a corporate production farms where high efficiency and maximum yield are often valued over quality of the final product and the ethical treatment of livestock. It’s really difficult to look at a package of meat in the grocery store and try to figure out the conditions under which the animals were raised. I don’t eat red meat, so that simplifies things for me a bit, but if I did, I would look for pasture raised animals,not grain-fed. When buying seafood I always opt for fresh and wild-caught and try to never knowingly consume farm raised fish. I also opt for free range chicken if possible. Whenever humanly possible I also buy local meat and poultry from a small farm where I know standards are going to be more humane.
Pesticides and Fungicides are often used in large quantities on food produced for human and animal consumption. The U.S. has some pesticide/herbicide/fungicide regulations but other countries are not as stringent and food that does not meet U.S. guidelines sometimes makes it through the cracks in the import process. This issue has been brought the nation’s attention recently with the apple juice scare. Hormones are perfectly acceptable in livestock production in the U.S. The FDA claims that these hormones are safe, but European studies are showing a potential cancer link. A good strategy for avoiding unwanted chemicals and hormones is to purchase organic produce and meat whenever possible as products bearing the organic label must meet guidelines including no hormone use or use of chemical pesticides. I’m not perfect on this one, and organic products often carry a hefty premium, but whenever possible I do now buy organic.
Livestock and agriculture operations can produce as much waste as small cities but regulations on the treatment of this waste is often lax or even non-existent. This waste can and often does end up polluting waterways or even potentially spreading disease. Again, it’s tough to look at an apple or a frozen burrito and know how much waste it’s production created. But, if it’s local and organic, it’s probably better than otherwise. When it comes to processed and semi-processed foods, I have also come to gravitate toward companies like Amy’s, Kashi and Food Should Taste Good that at least make some data about their supply chains and processing available.
Fossil Fuel and Energy Use
Industrial farms use huge amount of energy producing and processing products as well as transporting them during production and to the final consumer. Again, shopping local can greatly reduce these impacts and help you support your local economy in the process.
As I have mentioned, I am still learning all about all of this, and it can all seem very overwhelming, but thankfully there are some great online resources if you would like to learn more: