The Thought Process Behind a Sustainable Diet

With the age of consumption well and truly upon us, we cover some of the more important things to consider when trying to eat sustainably

With the age of consumption well and truly upon us, we cover some of the more important things to consider when trying to eat sustainably (Image Credit: Love Food Hate Waste NZ, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped)

Here at the Centre of Biodiversity Dynamics, we all pride ourselves in being a little more eco-conscious than most people (let’s not talk about the carbon footprint of our travels though). It is rare that we can make a meal together that involves meat since we are lousy with vegetarians. However, what we eat and how eco-friendly our diets actually are is a regular debate. This piece comes at the presupposition that the person reading this already has taken basic measures to be eco-friendly in their diet (i.e. not nomming on McDonalds’ reconstituted meat with a side helping of franken-fries). I am not going to talk about everything because there is frankly too much out there to discuss (and I’m not going to open a genetically modified can of worms).

Free range chicken or farm-raised fish?

The other night, my Norwegian friend tried to convince me his free-range-antibiotic-free-chicken who had a friend to put it’s little wing around was better for the environment than the fish I had made him the week before. I believed I was winning since salmon is famously Norwegian while the chicken is not exactly historically local, being a little less comfortable in a bunad. However, if we all just ate commercially fished meat we would be putting pressures on fish stocks that could then collapse (see the famous case of Atlantic sea cod). For people who can afford it, you can buy Marine Stewardship Certified sustainably fished wild products.

Then there’s aquaculture. Farm-raised fish as be lauded as a way to feed the hungry globe, yet it has faced criticism from environmentalists due to the cesspools of disease and waste caused by such high densities of fish. Also, genetically modified escapees may breed with wild fish, polluting the genetic pool of wild fish and lowing their natural resistance to diseases.

The Norwegian aquaculture industry has been a source of controversy recently, with its effects on local ecosystems a cause for concern

The Norwegian aquaculture industry has been a source of controversy recently, with its effects on local ecosystems a cause for concern (Image Credit: Julien Carnot, CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, both the chicken and the farm-raised salmon are probably eating soy that has been shipped from abroad. Additionally, in a country like Norway, chickens have to be housed indoors in the winter, and are certainly not native to Norway. The judgement call is up to you, but keep in mind how far away whatever animal you are eating is shipped. Or you know, be a vegetarian or vegan.

Why though? Soy is bad right?

There’s a lot of information out there about how bad soy is for the environment. And it’s not invalid. But the fact is that the majority of the soy that is shipped into your country is used to feed animals. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that energy is never conserved, and always lost. So when those animals feed on soy, there’s a massive amount of energy lost. Basically, the further up the food chain you go, the more energy is lost. By eating soy, fruits or vegetables you’re eating further down the food chain, which is always a more sustainable option.

There’s also a lot of information that’s presented in a very strange light. There was an article recently which stated that 100 calories of lettuce uses more water than 100 calories of meat. Might be true, but to eat 100 calories of lettuce in one sitting you’d have to eat over 2 kilos of it and please don’t do that in public.

I’m vegetarian/vegan and only eat organic produce. I’m killing it!

OK good but hold the phone. ‘Organic’ probably does not mean what you think it means. Many products labeled as organic still involve the use of pesticides, although at lower levels than industrially produced food. Farmers still need to control pests, one way or another. In the US, there are percentage limits of pesticides applied to any product rocking the organic label and there are other alternative farming products (such as Integrated Pest Management) intended to reduce the levels of pesticides used in food production. These products may not necessarily be labeled as ‘organic’ but they integrate the use of natural predators of pests, genetically modified organisms, and some pesticides.

Also, that organic mango you are eating in Norway has just maybe been shipped from another country, where its production may be detrimental to the local ecosystem. Another good example is the avocado, increased Western consumption of which is presently causing large-scale deforestation in Mexico. It’s important to remember that when you eat something, you are not just consuming the product, you are also consuming the energy used to grow the product, its packaging, and the energy and fuel used to refrigerate and ship it. So, remember to consider the full life-cycle of whatever you are eating and its packaging.

Increased demand for avocados has led to massive illegal deforestation in Central America

Increased demand for avocados has led to massive illegal deforestation in Central America (Image Credit: Lynn Greyling, CC0 1.0)

Yah, but the label said it was off.

The most jarring thing I found in Norway was the sheer amount of food thrown in the garbage. The expiration date on foods is NOT scientifically determined, and is usually decided on by the food producer itself. The worst thing you can probably do for the environment is throw away perfectly good food and waste the energy used to produce it. As my hippie bouldering friends will attest, this has inspired an active dumpster-diving culture in many countries. To clear up some misconceptions, dumpster diving is not illegal in Norway. However, many stores lock their bins which are often full of neatly stacked boxes of unopened perfectly good food (I’ve found boxes of Wasa bread and tons of those sauce packages that probably will go off after the last Twinkie has been enjoyed by Woodie Harrelson). Instead of locking away good food that is superficially too old, some people have been capitalising on this waste to open stores such as the Danish WeFood.

So how do I eliminate my food carbon footprint?

Nothing. Go feel holier-than-thou as you starve. Just kidding. Really, the best you can do is try to buy food from local producers who are ecologically conscious. The real catch-22 is that with 8 billion people on Earth, we need the fruits (get it?!) of the Green Revolution to feed everyone. If everyone on Earth only ate hunted, wild caught or foraged food, we would hunt, fish, and pick ourselves to extinction. Plus, a lot of organic, healthy, ‘good stuff’ comes at a price that frankly not everyone in the world can afford. We can, as consumers, however choose to put market pressures on producers to sell better food for both our bodies and the environment. In the meantime, just be an informed consumer and try to eat as locally and sustainably as possible.

For more information, we suggest the following:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Food Inc.

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