[One of my good friends is really into food policy, so I’ve picked up a bit of her interest, I guess. And, another good friend is an animal rights activist. The end result is that occasionally I get distracted from both music and language/culture studies to look at food issues.]
One portion of the typical American ecological footprint which is more easily addressed is the impact of meat consumption. Many people I know could not stand being vegetarian, but there are other options which can also improve one’s ecological impact. In addition, by changing how we buy and consume meat and other foods, we as consumers can help to keep our food safe from disease. And, who we buy our food from can help support healthy communities and can help strengthen society overall. This is probably true all over the planet, not just for Americans.
So, if you eat meat, there are a few options you could try to improve your ecological footprint.
First, try eating less meat. Most Americans eat far more meat than they need to get enough protein, and could also benefit from getting a more diverse range of protein. Beans. soy, and many other foods provide protein as well, and these non-meat sources include proteins meat doesn’t provide. Vegetarians get almost all the nutrients they need from plant-based protein sources like these, and if they retain some dairy and eggs in their diets (lacto-ovo vegetarianism) they get all the nutrients they need without taking supplements.
Second, if you do not wish to go vegetarian, become better educated about local options, so that you can buy your milk, eggs, cheeses and meat locally. This allows you to know how well the animals are treated, and thus how safe your food really is, since you can visit the facilities and see for yourself. Do not buy from giant corporations, if at all possible, especially when it comes to animal products. These companies are notorious for their inhumane treatment of animals, which can have serious implications for the food they produce. Chickens and other livestock that are raised on food that includes discarded parts of dead animals can easily pick up diseases from their cannibalism. In addition, the processing in giant meat processing plants includes many artificial chemicals, from hormone and antibiotic injections while still alive, to injections and chemical dips once the animal is dead. In addition, nitrates are added to red meats to keep them looking red in stores, since the blood in meat naturally would oxidize and turn brown if not chemically treated.
Instead of buying into this massive and under-regulated system, try to find local farmers and ranchers and buy from them. The price you pay for the food you buy from a store includes transportation costs, packaging and overhead for all the facilities involved in getting that food to the store. Very little of the money you pay at the store actually goes to the farmer or rancher. Usually a few cents at most of every food dollar you spend actually gets to the people who raise your food. Buying directly from local people may not be any more expensive per pound of food than buying at the stores, but the money all goes to the producers, not to middlemen. Get a stand-alone freezer, find a few friends to go in on it with you, and buy a whole cow from a local rancher, if there are any independent ranchers left where you live. If you have a back yard, buy a few chickens the next time there is a chick sale at your local hardware store, and get eggs from your own back yard. The only reason giant companies can have so much power over our food, and thus over our lives, is that we let them, by not looking for better, healthier solutions.
And, if you are going vegetarian, the benefits of buying local foods remains. The listeria contaminated cantaloupe we dealt with this year and the e-coli tainted spinach and lettuce that keep ‘cropping up’ practically every year are a result of the irresponsible measures farmers take in trying to make as much produce as cheaply as possible, and part of what drives this pressure is the factory farm system which drives down prices. Pesticide residues on our food and the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides where they can leach into drinking water supplies also present ample reasons to take more care in selecting your food sources. And, where much of the produce the US buys is grown, cheap produce sometimes means that safety regulations for agricultural workers are being ignored or flagrantly dismissed. There is DDT being sprayed on our food, even though it is generally not allowed in the US, and several chemicals which cause cancer and other more immediate diseases and symptoms, including death, are routinely used outside our borders where regulations are less strict.
There’s no call here to be paranoid, just savvy. If the prices we are paying for our food are too good to be true, we are almost certainly paying for our savings some other way, or we are making others pay for us. Just taking more interest in where our food comes from and how it was produced puts pressure on the big companies to adapt to consumer pressure, and in the meantime we can be eating foods that are cleaner, healthier, and more ethically sound.