Eating Our Way to Environmental Destruction
The choppers fly overhead, swooping down to release their poisons on the land and vegetation below, a ritual repeated over thousands of acres as far as the eye can see. Cheerful Mexican cantatas fill the air as workers clear the land of thousands of heads of iceberg lettuce, leaving the land looking like a warzone. But perhaps the most telling, or even chilling sight is the fact that where the land is bare of food growing, it is bare of all life in any form. No weeds, no earthworms and no bugs. Its' sole purpose is to prop up desired plants.
Welcome to the Salinas Valley, where your California produce is grown. This is your food on petroleum.
My family had the extreme good fortune of travelling to California in September for, of all things, a tomato festival. And the festival was great mind you, but what really stuck in my mind was the landscape of the Salinas Valley. This is where your grocery store food is grown; thousands and thousands of acres of lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, peppers and strawberries. The scale is mind boggling.
Michael Pollan, food activist and writer, wrote a masterful 8000 word piece entitled “Farmer in Chief", addressed to the candidates for President of the United States prior to the recent election. It is said Barack Obama read it and we'll see if the organic garden proposed for the White lawn actually materializes again as it did under the rule of Roosevelt.
Food is a big issue and one we tend to ignore, which is somewhat surprising. We all eat, 100% of us. Clearly it is a health issue, but it is a huge environmental issue too.
The statistics quoted in Michael Pollans’ piece are shocking, and point to the very real message that by eating the way we do here in North America, we add more greenhouses gases to the environment than with any other activity. In the US, the food system uses 19 percent of all fossil fuels consumed, second only to cars.
In 1940 the food system produced 2.3 calories of food for every calorie of fossil fuel used. Today that number has jumped to 10 calories of fossil fuel used producing only 1 calorie of supermarket food. Petroleum based pesticides, fertilizers, farm machinery, modern processing, packaging and transportation account in large part for this huge difference. In Michael Pollans words, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are "eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases".
There is no reason to believe it is any different here in Canada. In Ontario, the latest available statistics from 2006 point out that only 0.9% of all farms were certified organic, considered to be more environmentally friendly. More are not accounted for in these statistics, those that are true to the word organic, without the certification. But there are no big players in this game. The big players are the commodity growers, corn and soybeans. Those big fossil fuels users and empty food calorie makers, that show up in virtually every processed food you buy. Glucose fructose, soy lecithin...the list goes on.
These genetically modified crops are also used as feed for animals, particularly cows. Corn is an unnatural diet for a cow and is very difficult to digest for these natural grazers and ruminants. But because of the government policies and subsidies, corn is a cheap and available food for cows, and their biology is dismissed.
In his 2008 book, In Defense of Food, Pollan writes than the typical North American diet includes a whopping 200 pounds of meat a year. And meat and dairy production itself is a huge polluter.
When we eat the locavore way, we really feel like we're doing our thing for the environment. But of all the greenhouse gases associated with producing and transporting food, only 11 % are from food moving from farm to our table. The largest emitter of greenhouse gases is food production, and the costliest for the environment are meat and dairy production.
More pollution is created in the transporting of grains to feedlots, where animals are raised for meat than is created moving food from farms to the grocery store, according to a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. And according to New Scientist magazine, a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving the lights on at home.
So perhaps a little more organic (or better yet, home grown) and a little less meat could make a difference to the environment, suggestions that are for some reason controversial. But it is time we recognize that our personal choices do impact our world, and our food choices do too.