ethical eating, labels, and walking the line

5 Feb

ethical eating for the planetThis journey into wellness and food has taken me to places I would not have anticipated.

I’ve discovered that I am passionate about food. Not in the self-indulgent decadent way (think wine and cheese and foie gras), but more in the vein of delicious, healthful, ethical meals prepared in my kitchen. And that’s really the crux of it: ethical eating.

I find it interesting that for years I have considered myself a conscientious consumer. I recycle, I use reusable shopping bags, I minimize my consumerism, I buy used items often, I pick up litter, I use a travel mug when I patronize coffee shops, and I even buy fair trade coffee. And yet, it took me years to honestly examine the simplest (and most impactful) form of consumption.

We have choices when it comes to our food. Ethical eating encompasses a wide array of options, including (but not limited to):

  • Supporting local agriculture to reduce the carbon footprint of transport, and to bolster sustainable family farming
  • Buying certified organic products to reduce harmful chemicals in industrial agriculture
  • Reducing animal product consumption to lower the impact of factory farming on animals and the environment
  • Buying local, humanely-raised animal products instead of factory-farmed meat and dairy
  • Eating whole-ingredient foods to avoid artificial ingredients and processing waste
  • Rejecting GMO produce to sustain biodiversity

This is not radical tree-hugging hippie propaganda.  It is a solid, well-documented fact that our eating habits are harming our health and destroying this planet. We are conveniently able to avoid facing this fact, however. We buy our food in neat packages at the grocery store, with pretty pictures of lush farm fields on the labels, or happy cows in pastures. But I suppose they might not sell as many eggs if the cartons depicted an image of how egg farming really works.

hens in cages for eggs

Laying hens in "battery cages". Image provided via public domain.

The truth is that our insatiable demands for cheap meat, exotic produce, dairy products and corn-based everything has created an epidemic of food-based problems. Just a select few of these man-made disasters:

  • We waste millions of gallons of water and millions of tons of grain every year to feed the cattle which provide us with burgers and steaks.
  • Our commercial fishing fleets have depleted wild fisheries by almost 30%, and our current fish consumption habits will fully destroy these fish stocks by the year 2048.
  • Factory farming of animals perpetuates unspeakable cruelty every day. Not to mention the environmental impacts and health concerns of growing animals in confinement.
  • Our unsustainable agricultural structure requires billions of government subsidy dollars to stay afloat, adding astronomical hidden costs to taxpayers for that $2.99 pound of ground beef.

That’s just the beginnings of what I’ve discovered along this path. I will write in more detail on each of these subjects in the coming months, but for now I think it’s important to evaluate another aspect of ethical eating: labels.

vegetarian vegan labelingThere is, of course, much talk in the food world about reading food packaging labels. This is a productive use of time for health-conscious consumers, to be sure. However, I’m more concerned currently with the other, more divisive type of label.

After only a few months of self-education, I already run into many people who ask me to define my food philosophy. This presents an indomitable challenge. Firstly, my philosophy is ever-changing as I learn more about the food I eat. Second, my current philosophy does not fit into any neatly-defined pigeonhole.

I am not a vegan or a vegetarian, and don’t anticipate becoming one. However, I have drastically reduced my meat intake, and seek to find ethical sources of meat. I do not believe that the mere act of eating meat is unethical, as we are biologically programmed to be omnivorous members of a once-complex food chain. However, the primary mode of production of animal products in this country is inhumane and, in my opinion, unethical on many levels. I don’t eat dairy, and I no longer eat eggs that are not locally-grown. I shop at the farmer’s market and the co-op, but I also shop at the Mexican grocery and Albertson’s. I drink diet soda sometimes and eat fried food, yet I am very concerned with how my eating habits influence my health. I grow some of my own food and try not to buy too much imported produce, but I drink imported wines and coffee. Label that!

This brings me to my next conundrum: where am I going?

I don’t want to be one of those annoying, self-righteous vegans who say things like, “You’re a hypocrite for recycling that plastic bottle in the name of environmentalism unless you are also a vegan.” (Yes, this is an real quote from an actual vegan.) I don’t want to live in a bubble of like-minded people, nor do I want to glide through life on a soapbox. I do, however, want to help others examine their own eating habits. I do want to inspire others to help correct this frightening food cycle we are in. I do want to help people reconnect with what they eat, and be appreciative of where that food comes from. How can I accomplish all of this?

ethical eating is not about absolutesI will have to find an elegant way to walk the line. It seems that many people who have taken the time to examine the food industry have become bitter, saddened, frustrated. I understand that sentiment, as it is hard not to be weighed down by the immensity of the problem. Their disillusionment, however, leads to combative preaching to a resistant public.

We need to start small to have any hope of effecting change. Most people are overwhelmed by the idea of becoming a vegan, and in truth we could attain an ethical, sustainable food system even if people continued to eat meat; they just would need to eat a lot less of it, and we would need to alter the structure of animal farming in this country. People also need to be inspired to care.

So I find it prudent to lead by an example of moderation, and to be gentle with people. It’s much easier to start a conversation about dairy when the person asks me about my own choices, instead of trying to preach to every person who orders a milkshake. It’s more successful (and more fun!) to take my friend to the farmer’s market, instead of lecturing her about buying Ecuadorian mangoes at Wal-Mart. Furthermore, ethical eating is not about uncompromising abstinence or militant ideologies. It’s about baby steps. The world will improve for each person who adopts Meatless Mondays or goes to their farmer’s market once a month.

As Syd Baumel wrote, “Ethical eating, like ethical living, is not about absolutes. It’s about doing the best you’re willing and able to do – and nurturing a will to keep doing better.”

Through honest conversation, and through this blog, I hope to help inspire others to reconnect to their food choices, and to be brave enough to examine the health, ethical, and environmental repercussions of these choices. Being a visual artist, I also plan on using imagery to connect people viscerally to food, agriculture, and wellness.

Don’t worry, I’ll still keep up with the tasty recipes and nutritional tidbits – it’s all part of the wellness odyssey! ;)

So much more to come…

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2 Responses to “ethical eating, labels, and walking the line”

  1. ailanna March 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    Thank you for being a voice of reason. Moderates, unite! I agree that examining what we eat is an important first step. Most of us are very far from our food, and the industry is by no means transparent about what it does. I’d like to think that education, paired with gentle encouragement and help in making better choices, will be key. I’m with you about the labels, too. I don’t think it matters what we call ourselves as long as we strive to eat in an ethical and sustainable way.

    • ThisAmericanDiet March 4, 2011 at 8:20 am #

      Yes! The unfortunate truth is that our current formal education system is set up merely to perpetuate the problem. We are quite indoctrinated from a young age to believe many things that are not true about food. Correct education has to come from the ground up, I think, and it starts with a few people educating themselves. That movement is growing…

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