Monthly Archives: April 2014

Food: It’s Complicated

Recent organic food purchases. Some of this is local, some fair-trade.

Recent organic food purchases. Some of this is local, some fair-trade.

I’ve had another bout of being busy, and haven’t been able to get to blog-writing for the past two weeks, but perhaps the time has added some perspective to my recent mini-hobby—food. How do our eating habits affect the planet? Can my food choices change things for the better? My feeling was that our choices do indeed matter, so the other week I decided that I needed to step it up, and to completely quit supporting the pesticide industry, and the herbicide industry, and the cruelty of factory farming, by making sure that all of the food I bought was organic. It only lasted two weeks. But, it was an interesting experiment, and it underscored how complicated our life choices can be in the real world.

So, the short version—the organic, all-natural, and local foods were really tasty. They all seemed to be of very high quality, in addition to being organic. Fresh baked bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese from cows that graze on grass, creamy yellow butter, local eggs from free-range birds living natural lives. In addition, many of the companies producing this food are socially-conscious, and pay fair wages, or donate to the World Wildlife Federation, or protect African elephants. We are also lucky enough to have an amazing store here, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Upon starting the all-organic experiment, I had wondered what ingredients I would have to do without if I chose to buy only these types of foods. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that virtually all normal ingredients have a locally-available option that’s organic or sustainable—flour, rice, beans, fruits and veggies, milk and eggs, olive oil, beer and wine, teas and coffee, cheese, and locally and naturally raised chicken, pork, and grass-fed beef, and, at other stores in town, sustainably caught seafood from the Gulf of Maine. A small downside—slightly more cooking and planning was required under the new, all-organic food plan, but we were eating like kings. We eat well anyway, but these were all fantastic, near-gourmet meals. Great food, family time cooking together, and purchases that were supporting people who were doing some really good things, in all manner of sustainable ways.

Responsibly Harvested Logo Website

Sustainably caught seafood…

But, despite all of this wonderfulness, a few problems began to creep into the plan. First, while available, these foods cost more. As a family we were already purchasing quite a bit of organic and natural food, but we also buy a fair amount of “conventional” industrial food at the bigger stores. And while we’re fortunate to make good incomes, food for our family of five, even as we normally purchase it, is one of our larger monthly expenses. While I was surprised to find some organic options at nearly the same price as “conventional” (bulk olive oil and freshly-ground peanut butter are two that come to mind), most organic options, either due to the scale at which they are produced, or the extra costs of production, cost significantly more. Organic milk, cheese, most meats, and apples are nearly double the price of conventionally produced options. Taken as an entire group, organic items seem to run about a third more than conventional. For any given item the extra cost might only be a dollar or so, but over the course of a month, a 30% higher grocery bill could cost hundreds of additional dollars.

Now, there’s a chance that this extra cost could be offset by buying in bulk, and carefully choosing meal options, and buying local foods in season, and taking lunch to work instead of buying it there, etc. But, for the time being, the cost alone forced me to abandon the 100% organic plan, at least until I have time to give it some more thought.

And, cost wasn’t the only complexity. Upon reflection, I realized that an “organic” label alone doesn’t tell a complete story about the sustainability of a food option, although it certainly helps. Here’s an example—milk choices. In order of price, I seem to have about four different levels of milk options when I go to purchase milk. For roughly $3.50 a gallon, I can buy mass-produced, store-brand milk from the local big-name grocery store. For $3.99, I can buy a gallon of conventionally farmed milk from the local dairy, or for $3.99 I can buy a half-gallon of organic milk from Wisconsin, or, for $4.99, a half-gallon of local, organic milk from really happy cows pastured on grass from small-scale farms just up the road. That’s quite a range of prices—from $3.50 to the equivalent of $9.98 a gallon. But, to just take the middle two options—which is better, organic milk from 900 miles away, or more “conventional” (but rBGH-free) milk from a local confinement dairy? I don’t actually know—how do the carbon footprints of these two choices compare? How unhappy are the well-cared for cows in the barns up the road, even though they don’t get out much?

Similar difficulties arise with other items. Organic asparagus or raspberries might be great, but if they’re out of season and have been flown in from Peru, then it’s probably not a good environmental choice. Likewise with, say, organic almonds. The organic part is great, but if they’re raised in gigantic mono-culture orchards with no habitat for natural pollinators, then that’s perhaps not the best choice, either. Then there are the items that aren’t certified as “organic” but are produced using methods that are very close to that standard—how does one judge? Or, what’s better—organic production of crops that are annuals and require tilling and therefore result in soil erosion, or near-organic production of perennials? What’s better, Fair Trade wine from South Africa, or local wine from down the road? No matter how you slice it, it often comes up more gray than black and white.

Fresh berries--- better from a farm near you.

Fresh berries are better choices if they haven’t had to take a plane ride.

Then, in addition to all of these factors, there’s another, perhaps even bigger, question—what if organic was hands-down the most sustainable option, but organic yields per acre were lower—could we feed the world this way? Even more difficult—could growing food organically also feed the addition billions that will be joining us in the next few decades? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then we need another plan, and we need it pretty fast. I’ve heard this charge before—that organic can’t feed the world, that it would simply require too much space. So, I did some reading, including articles in Scientific American (“Will Organic Food Fail to Feed the World?“),  WorldWatch Institute (“Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?“), and a Huffington post overview of the recent UN report on this topic, among others. The bottom line seems to be this— that organic yields would go down compared to the most chemically and carbon-intensive farming in the industrial world, but might go way up in the developing world. BUT—this question of yields seems to be, on the whole, something of a red herring. Continue reading

Brace Yourself

“By one estimate, the Caribbean has lost 80% of its coral cover over the past 50 years. And the future is even darker: the one-two punch of global warming and ocean acidification could make the seas essentially inhospitable to coral, with dire consequences for marine life…” —Bryan Walsh

palmyra atoll

Even the most remote reefs, such as this one at Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific, might not survive the Anthropocene.

Despite positive tidbits, here’s yet more news of the overall downhill slide of planet’s condition; the above quote from an article by Bryan Walsh in the current edition of Time (14 April 2014)— “Ocean View: Like a Google map of the seabed, a new survey is documenting coral reefs—before they’re gone”. Every time I read an article like this, about the incredible damage we humans are doing to the life on the planet, it really knocks me back. I feel helpless, like I’m being swirled along in a current of forces I can’t control. But we need to brace ourselves—it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Though there are positive forces in motion, the system as a whole is still headed in the wrong direction, and is doing so with quite a bit of momentum. This momentum is due to ever-increasing population numbers, rising worldwide affluence, and our unsustainable production and energy systems, none of which are easily changed. This negative momentum is going to cause more and more heartbreaking environmental failures in the years to come. Eventually, as the drumbeat of horrible news grows ever louder, the great mass of people will begin paying attention, and there will be much more pressure to change. Until then, though, the failures are likely to worsen.


Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The reefs here have been damaged by millions of visitors. The greater long-term threat, however, is ocean acidification caused by CO2.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The reefs here have been damaged by millions of visitors. The greater long-term threat, however, is ocean acidification caused by CO2.

Some people are paying attention already, and some people are visualizing how badly this could end up. I’ve seen more and more doomsday predictions lately, such as this one by William Falk, “We’re Finished, Now What?“. I try to be consistent in what I write here, but I admit to wavering myself on this topic of outlook, alternating between more pessimistic takes (“It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“) and the relatively sanguine, (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“), and then back again (last month’s “The Anthropocene and the Psychology of Alarm“). Taken as a whole, though, I can’t quite agree with William Falk just yet; I’m not sure that we’re quite “finished”. But we are clearly in danger, and these dire predictions are part of the alarm that will be a necessary part of turning ourselves around. (Note, 16 Apr 2014— Mr. X refers to the Falk article above as “hysterical melodrama”, and suggests that I remove it. My point was that I don’t agree with Falk, but perhaps I didn’t phrase it clearly enough.)

But while we need the alarm, to spur people into action, it clearly isn’t registering strongly enough yet. Last night I was at a town gathering for a school function, and I realized once again that at least 90% of us seem to be barreling along on the paths we’ve always been on, driving our huge vehicles, living our lives, buying ever more belongings, and not paying attention. Eventually, though, the environmental failures will add up, and the reality of the situation will begin to sink in. 

Everyone on the planet should watch this video…

Until we reach this sort of worldwide critical mass, however, there are things we can do. In fact, there are critical things that must be done, and done now. In short, we can start getting the new systems set up; we don’t exactly know how to do it all yet. We can be the models, the trailblazers, we can work the bugs out, we can start the transition. Then, when the great mass of humanity begins to really care, they’ll have an escape hatch ready, clearly marked. I have no doubt about what humans will be able to accomplish, and accomplish quickly, once they set their collective minds to the task. These new systems we will need are already being set up, and at rates that are encouraging. I just read an article about how new ideas are enabling net-zero houses to be constructed at the same price as conventional construction (Fine Homebuilding, “The Future of Housing in America”, by Kevin Ireton). My daughter, part of her school’s environmental club, reports that with composting and new procedures at lunch, that the cafeteria can now feed over 800 students and only produce 1/2 a bag of trash. As of last month, I can now elect to have my teacher retirement put into funds that don’t invest in fossil fuel companies. I was in Burlington yesterday, and saw four new electric vehicle chargers almost completely installed in one of the city’s parking garages. In Rutland, a huge new community solar array has just sprung up in a vacant lot. In my school, all of the bins for paper to be recycled have now been replaced with zero-sort bins, so that all recyclable materials can be recycled. I could make this list quite a bit longer, but let me just point this out—every single one of the above changes was put into place by a small group of individuals, somewhere, who were determined to make a difference. And every one of the changes listed above is a systems change, and will affect hundreds or thousands of people. In the future, when people want to live in a net-zero house, or drive an EV, or be part of community solar, or eat lunch at school without creating a pile of trash, it will be easier due to these systems. And, in an added bit of good news, try this on—as more people realize how to replicate the systems, the changes become ever-easier to implement. My school won’t have to reinvent the wheel—we’ll visit my daughter’s school and copy what they did to reduce their cafeteria trash to almost nothing. And as the systems get changed, it will become ever-easier for ordinary people to live in sustainable ways. Right now it can be difficult—I have to carry my composting home from work, or walk a distance from a car charger, or struggle to find people who can answer my questions about solar power, etc. Eventually, eventually, it will become the default, for everyone, whether they’re trying to be sustainable or not.

So, brace yourself for more bad news. But don’t lose heart, and don’t freak out (see my last post, “Keep Calm and Carry On“), and realize that the bad news, ironically, is also part of what will bring us out to the other side.

Image credit: Palmyra Atoll—Jim Maragos, USFWS-Pacific Region.
Hanuama Bay Panorama #2, by Daniel Ramirez, Flickr Creative Commons.