A What-You-Put-Into-Your-Mouth Eco-vocabulary

Field Notices

Luther College Chips

April 16, 2009

Your most important connection to the environment may, more than anything else, depend on what you put in your mouth.

Environmentally conscious food choices affect the 52% of the land mass of North America dedicated to farming, and ripple far beyond to the Kenyan mountains, Brazilian rainforests  and the world’s oceans.

But the terminology for green consumption can be overwhelming.  Here’s my primer of the words that matter in food choices.

First, train yourself to hear alarm bells when you read or hear the words “natural,” “nature,” “green,” or “environmentally friendly” as applied to food or most other consumable goods.  These vague terms are tacked to sell you something because you feel it is good for you or the environment. 

Just the opposite is the legally defined, patrolled, and enforced use of the term “organic.”

“Organic” means the food was raised without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic modification, sewage sludge fertilizer, or irradiation, and produced without artificial ingredients or preservatives. 

I buy organic whenever possible.  First, organic production lessens toxins in the environment.  Second, organic food is not going to have residual traces of any chemical invented by modern science and therefore strange to the slowly and carefully evolved organism that is the human body.  Third, it often tastes better.  Blind taste test a fresh organic carrot or tomato against its conventional equivalent.

If you are going to buy organic selectively, go organic with fruits like apples, grapes, strawberries and peaches, and with vegetables such as spinach and potatoes.  These crops, commercially grown, use and retain a high level of pesticides.  Buy organic meat and dairy foods because toxins accumulate more heavily as you go up the food chain.

“Local” food is a good idea because more money goes to the producer and less to the distribution system including its energy costs.  Local is often fresher or picked more ripe. Local also keeps money recirculating in your own regional economy.

One of the beauties of living in Decorah is its increasingly developed local food network.  It is relatively easy here to put a producer’s face and farm behind almost any type of food you care to eat.  Because many of the labels discussed below are meaningful but subject to abuse, it is often important to know firsthand how an animal or crop was raised.

“Free range” can mean that the animal was not raised in a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO).  In a CAFO, animals are raised in factory conditions, packed into buildings or into pens that separate them from vegetation. 

From my point of view the most common cruel food you are likely to eat is a commercial egg.  The chicken that laid that egg has spent its entire life in cages, ultimately in a battery cage with other hens, no nesting material, a radically cropped beak (so she won’t peck out the eyes of her close-quarter cage mates), and so little opportunity for movement that her legs atrophy from disuse in her two wretched years of life.  According to the Humane Society, the average cage space in the U.S. for an egg-laying hen is 6.7 inches by 10 inches.   If you think eating eggs instead of meat improves your karma, please consult the history of the egg.

More trustable labels for free-range food are “pastured” or “grass-fed.”  Pastured pork and poultry, for example, comes from pigs or chickens that spend most of their waking lives in a field. Grass-fed beef is from cattle that ate grass and hay their entire life, which is what cattle evolved to do.

“Sustainable” food is raised in ways that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable over time.  This may include organic production, if the farmer is a good soil steward.  It means using time-tested farming methods, fair labor practices, and investments that have the long term more in mind than the short term.

The most important place to look for the “sustainable” label is in seafood.  Lots of the fish you or your pets consume are caught or raised in ways that promise to wipe out populations within a few decades.  Because of the impending disaster in this market, unlike other meat, fish purchased in the U.S. now has origin labels that state where it came from and whether it was wild or farmed.  The Marine Stewardship Council and Friend of the Sea have trustworthy certification for sustainable seafood.

“Forest-grown” coffee comes from the other side of the planet, but it affects birds that make their summer home in Northeast Iowa.  Conventional coffee has been bred to be raised in plantation fields which allow industrial farming.  These fields are also heavily sprayed and destroy wildlife habitat.  Conventional coffee production kills birds.

If you buy coffee with the “Bird-Friendly” seal of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center you know it has been grown as coffee was meant to grow, as the understory in a canopy forest of other trees.  Grown in this way, coffee is usually also organic and fair trade certified.

“Fair trade certified” guarantees that food grown in countries with a developing economy  has been produced and sold in a way that gives maximum benefit to farmers and field laborers.  But the label also certifies that harmful agrichemicals were not used (because these jeopardize the health of farm workers) and that the source is not genetically modified.  Go for fair trade when you buy a banana.

What and how you eat has a huge impact on the living world around us.  It’s time you start developing the eco-vocabulary that matters in your food and beverage life.