Preamble: There are more issues included in what you eat than could ever possibly be addressed completely in a 700 word newspaper column. I have had to be selective and brief in addressing things here. For further reading, I suggest: Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Marion Nestle’s “What to Eat” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.”1:30 p.m.: Jason Downer Commons, the most popular campus cafeteria, serves more than 800 students daily. The most unsustainable aspect of Downer is the food waste resulting from its a la carte style: According to Greenfire waste collected during Greenfire’s Clean Plate Challenge, about 50-60lbs of edible food waste are thrown away in a two hour dinner period. The posters and facts in Downer provide students with a constant reminder of the food waste created every meal in the cafeteria, but no effort has yet been made to quantify the success of these posters.
Where does the food you eat actually come from? According to Director of Dining Services Patrick Niles, Downer gets most refrigerated and dry groceries, meats, seafood and dairy from Reinhart Foodservice in Shawano, Wis. Other items, says Niles, such as “produce, paper, chemicals, coffee, etc. are bid out to the lowest bidder or comparison shopped with pricing and quality in mind.” Niles estimates that approximately 10 percent of Downer’s current purchases are local/sustainable/organic and he would like to see this increase to 20 percent in the next few years.
Though Downer is clearly not as sustainable as it could be, there are small initiatives. This past year, a partnership with the garden has led to the composting of all the pre-consumer vegetable waste created by Downer. Megan Bjella, president of SLUG, says the garden receives three garbage-bin-sized deliveries of compost each week. And next year, Downer will be purchasing all the crops produced by SLUG. Another step being investigated by the Dining Advisory Committee is “green” packaging.
As of today, clearly everything at Downer is not “green.” But you can still choose foods on your own that lessen your impact on the global environment. But organic or local? Meat, vegetarian or vegan?
“Organic,” by the USDA definition, means that production methods “minimize pollution from air, soil and water” and “enhance the ecological balance of natural systems.” Functionally, this definition means not using pesticides or fertilizers with harmful chemicals in them. However, many organic crops are still monocultures, or one plant grown over acres of land, a practice that decreases soil fertility and biodiversity and increases harmful pest populations, run-off and erosion.
Organic crops may also be grown in remote locations and so require unsustainable petroleum oil to get to your grocery store or cafeteria. The average distance produce travels to get to your local super market is 1500 miles, even though the same produce is often grown within 20 miles. Local foods may not be certified organic by the USDA definition, but use less energy to get to you and support the local economy.
Ultimately, it would be best to eat organic foods grown locally. But as this is not always possible, you must weigh your personal environmental values against the disadvantages and advantages of organic and local foods.
But it is not merely organic vs. local in the sustainable food argument, but also meat-eating vs. vegetarianism. Which is ultimately more sustainable?
The “greenness” of eating meat depends on where and how the animal is raised. Most commercial beef comes from large, industrial meat factories where cows live in high densities in tiny stalls and are fed corn laced with antibiotics and growth hormones. Even so-called “free range beef” comes from cows living in virtually unchanged conditions, except that they may have access to a tiny, fenced in pasture for a few hours a day, into which they rarely venture, because the animals don’t know it’s there. Cows also did not evolve to eat corn. They can get sick from it unless also fed medicines, which leach into the water system in the cow’s urine. And this corn could have been fed to people as a direct source of energy instead of diverting it through cows to produce beef. Both cows and corn often travel a great distance from factory to table.
Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, is much more sustainable. As humans have evolved as cattle-raising pastoralists, grass pastures have evolved as ecosystems in their own rate. Cows raised on grasslands that are not suitable for other kinds of agriculture actually help maintain the diversity of the grassland. Clearly, vegetarianism is not as cut and dry as eating or not eating meat.
But what is sustainable to eat, then? The issues discussed here are only the barest of introduction into sustainable eating. I leave it up to you to investigate more and decide for yourself. Just think about where those processed corn chips in plastic you were going to buy came from.
Sources: Yale Sustainable Food Project, Sustainable College Dining Services, USDA, SustainableTable.org