Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Environmentalist's Dilemma: The Making of a Food-Related Decision

Excuse the reference to Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals but that book is partially responsible for my current quandary. I also attribute a portion of my plight to those darn fake plastic fish, a handful of environmentally relevant books and a cantankerous blog. Before reading all of the above, I was blissfully ignorant as I pushed my cart through Whole Foods toting my "green bags". I didn't stay that way though and here's why:

I like to read . . . a lot. I've read more green books and blogs than I care to count. I'm hungry for ways to live more lightly but, the more information I gather, the more I find myself faced with heavier decisions about the smallest aspects of daily living.
For instance, after reading Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I embraced eating locally. Shipping food around the world is not good for the food or the planet. The food becomes tasteless and the planet polluted. A trip to the farmer's market taught me that it is no hardship to eat within my own foodshed. In fact, take a peek at my side-bar poll and you'll find that most people, who have tried eating locally, love it.
Next, I gobbled up Omnivore's Dilemma, and realized the importance of how food is produced. Industrial food - be it conventional or organic - takes a tougher toll on the earth than that produced on small organic family farms. Animals raised in an industrial setting invariably endure unhealthy, miserable but short lives. Moreover, just because an organization calls itself a "small family farm" doesn't mean it is - especially if they are selling at a major grocery chain. I always bought my local, organic, free range eggs from Judy's Family Farms (at Whole Foods) and was charmed by the description of rolling hills, red chicken coops and idyllic little hens. Click here to learn the truth behind that fairy tale. Having my eyes opened by Omnivore's Dilemma meant I now had to weigh methods of food production as well as food miles.
Then along came Beth in her Fake Plastic Fish Tank and that difficult one, the Arduous Blog, to reveal the trash on recycling "recyclable plastic." It has the right number on the back, you put it in your recycling bin and feel all good that you've done your part to save the Earth but what happens next will surprise you. Click here to learn how plastic is recycled (mixed plastic can only be recycled one time) and here to see where it is recycled (betcha can't guess).
So, how does the ecologically conscious, well informed consumer shop for food? Very slowly. Right now I find myself practically paralyzed over what kind of milk to buy. Do I go for milk in the reusable glass bottle from the local organic dairy which markets itself as a "small family farm" but probably isn't? Or the smallish local family farm that sells it's organic, pastured raw milk in mountains of plastic through a small co-op? Is there just too much information out there? Are there real benefits to educating ourselves or is it just too overwhelming? Too many factors to consider in just living?

Maybe ignorance was bliss but it's no way to make a decision. I'll muddle through this environmental dilemma one way or another and keep on reading. In my book, there's no such thing as too much information. Isn't that how we ended up here to begin with?


Chile said...

I agree, the choices keep getting harder and harder. It seems like the more we can actually grow and produce ourselves, the better, but it's not necessarily practical for each person to have their own complete farm. As more people ask for more local sustainably produced food, my hope is more will become available. That whole supply and demand thing. I also realize that I'm often an unrealistic idealist...

Regarding milk, switching to soymilk might be one option. You could grow your own soybeans and make it yourself. :)

perilousknits said...

A friend of mine is looking into the idea of breeding and selling Miniature Dairy Cows, so that anyone with more than one acre of land could have their own (very small) cow. Now, talk about environmentally friendly packaging!

I understand your dilemma with the milk. I'm not able to get milk, at all, in my foodshed right now because everyone's cows are pregnant (who knew, milk is seasonal too!), but luckily we aren't big milk-eaters. What I CAN get locally, is cheese. Yummy cheese, the best cheese ever . . . but it all comes in plastic shrink-wrapped packaging. One use, and it's destroyed. I could cope with it in a jar, or a plastic container with a lid I could wash and reuse, but SHRINK WRAP? Ugh.

Fortunately, it's a farmer I can shake hands with once a week, at the farmer's market, so I intend to tell him, "Listen, I love love love your cheeses, but I'm not thrilled with the packaging."

Maybe I should get a mini-cow for a friend, who will share the milk with me. Then, I can make my own darn cheese. As long as the cheese cultures I have to buy can be shipped to be in Reusable Packaging!!

Green Bean said...

Thanks Chile. I am with you actually - maybe I'm also an unrealistic idealist. ;-) Anyway, I at least hope that someone will turn up at the farmer's market with local milk or such. In the meantime, I try to do more and more myself but at some point, you just run out of time. I guess that's why building community is important - you can share jobs.

I'll check into making soy milk. I saw that Beth at Fake Plastic Fish had info on how to make your own - yet another something to add to my list, at least until I get my own farm with sheep, cow, chickens, and so on. :)

Green Bean said...

Ha ha, PK. My parents have actually talked about getting a miniature cow too! My dad worked at a dairy farm as a teen and has always loved cows. How fun would that be? Of course, it's like Chile says, it's like we all need our own farm.

You are right with regard to buying stuff at the farmer's market - it's easier to ask for the changes we want. For instance, I plan to ask our local beekeeper to package some honey in glass bottles instead of plastic. It helps to be able to talk to these folks in person.

Let us know how it goes with the cow. ;-)

Chile said...

'Course a goat would be a critter available now (no special breeding needed) that would produce milk tro drink and make cheese with... However, you might want to read about e4's goat adventures before going that route.

arduous said...

Yeah, I was horrified when I read that bit in "Garbage Land" as well. And the problem with plastic is it's just ... everywhere.

I don't know what the best answer is, though asking the local farm to start making milk in reusable glass bottles is a good start. I think the advantage of doing something like that, honestly, is it takes some work on the part of you, the initiator, but eventually everyone in your co-op benefits which means that the net plastic you've saved from landfill is greater. And once they've agreed to a switch, you'll probably save them money in the long run because they won't have to keep buying plastic. Which is good for the small business.

Melinda said...

I haven't bought Judy's because both my husband and I looked at the packaging and smelled a rat. Guess we were right! However, we sometimes get our cheese from Petaluma Farms. Ugh.

Someday, we will have a goat for milk, and chickens and ducks for eggs. And we will make our own butter and cheese. That will solve the problem!!

But until then, I cannot believe how much time I spend shopping. I look at every package, I do a lot of web research. And still we can get duped!

I will not buy Clover Stornetta because Matt and I decided one day to check out one of their farms. Calves in small plastic boxes stacked several stories high. Not the picture on the package.

Seems our next field trip will be to Straus, where we get our milk in reusable glass containers. We also buy their butter. Let me know if you find out anything about them!

Green Bean said...

Arduous, you are right. The best thing to do is to contact the raw milk farm and ask them to use reusable glass bottles. I looked into that and they didn't have an email and calling them seemed so, well, arduous. But I will follow up. I do believe it is important to be green even (especially) when it is not convenient. So I'd better put my money where my mouth is.

Chile, hmmm, after that story, I think I'll stick with mini cows. ;-)

Melinda, I'd love chickens and ducks! Someday. In the meantime, thanks for the heads up on Clover. Strauss is the one I use with the reusable milk bottles. They say that are a small family farm but I have a feeling they are not. I haven't been able to garner any info on them and haven't gone to tour the farm. Let me know if you find anything out. They sell so many products in so many outlets, I'm guessing they are pretty much a factory farm.

I use Spring Hill Farm in Petaulma for butter and cheese but again, it is wrapped in plastic. Unavoidable. They do claim pasture-grazed which is more than Strauss says. Any intel on Spring Hill, Melinda?

CindyW said...

I completely share your concern for food source. With fruit and veggie, it seems relatively simple - we get 95% from farmer's market. This year we are trying to grow some ourselves. But dairy and meats are difficult. I always remember what Babara Kingsolver half-seriously says in her book "Animal, Vegetables, Miracles" - she is lactose intolerant, so she can not nurse any more. Humans are pretty much the only mammals that drink milk after infancy. I agree that it is easy to get protein and calcium from milk. Perhaps other options need to be considered more seriously. I have two toddlers and I have bought into "drinking milk is good for their health" argument, no doubt highly influenced by the dairy industry. I plan to bring up the topic of "stop cow nursing" with their pediatrician, who will probably think that I am nuts.

A website I check in is: Cornucopia They provide scores of the dairy farm practice. But now that I hear about Clover's practice, I am not so sure about the scoring any more (Clover gets 4 out of 5). Sigh.

Glad blogs like this exists, so we can all muddle through this food maze together.

Blessed Wife and Mother said...

I sure wish we had a farmers market even remotely close to where we live. We have to drive an hour to get to one, and by then it has cost us so much in gas. Bleh!
I do have a connection for our raw Goats milk and another connection for some veggies (thanks Granny-In-Law) but I would like to be part of the "Box a Week" program!

Green Bean said...

Cindy, my kids don't drink milk thanks to now outgrown dairy allergies. We use it in baked goods, on cereal and, of course, ice cream but you could probably easily switch them over to something else. Of course, I'm not sure the benefits of soy or rice milk are better given all the packaging and ingredients in those. My kids drink plain water with some occasional juice mixed in. I'll laugh if you talk to your doctor about stop cow nursing! Let us know how it goes.

I wish our farmers' markets had more dairy and meat options available but, hearing from others, we're lucky with what we have. As for eggs, Glaum egg ranch is supposed to be very humane (they sell at Whole Foods) according to real eye witnesses and here's a link to a place in Napa that sells eggs and grass fed beef from a good environment.

Blessed Wife, thank goodness for the local goat milk option and the veggies. No CSA's near you?

Those of us lucky enough to live somewhere with lots of farmers' markets need to also be a little more proactive and trying to find other local sources for what we need: dairy, eggs, meat. The more we ask for what we want, hopefully, we'll eventually get it.

Sarah said...

There is a very clear way that "environmentalists" should eat - vegan. There is no debate that meat and dairy production are immensely disastrous on the environment, and that simply switching to a vegan diet will reduce your impact on the environment many times over. That also makes a lot of these decisions much easier (though not all of them go away), and you feel better to boot!

Beany said...

I don't know how I originally missed this post (I know I was reading your blog in January)...but I've been feeling paralyzed too. Sometimes I dread visiting FakePlasticFish because who knows what new area plastic has taken over.

I've been feeling paralyzed and incredibly so. I bought some orange juice after my most recent food poisoning and I'm feeling so incredibly guilty at the thought that the containers are not recyclable. I've stopped eating cheese because it comes in plastic. I'm so hungry right now, but have to wait until I get home in a few hours so I don't buy something crappy wrapped in plastic. I really didn't plan very well for the dark days challenge and I think we'd gotten some sort of malnutrition before I broke down and got some nonlocal fruits and veggies.

I don't understand why I have to go out of my way to not get poisoned. Shouldn't good, clean healthy food be a given? Sorry for the rant, but I've been in a very bad mood lately and posting all sorts of negative comments everywhere and being very judgemental in general.

For example I love my friends, but I hate to quit judging everything they do and buy and eat. And I really don't want to start making a habit of b*tching about them anonymously on blogs. That's wrong.

There are days when I am level headed and realize that I should take things one step at a time, and a slowly...but today I am just feeling highly frustrated!


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