A Discussion on Sustainable Food

I was listening to NPR the other day when a discussion of Vegan Ice Cream came up. Apparently this is a growing industry in certain parts of Germany. Which is cool. Except when they started talking about the ingredients and Palm Oil came up.

Here’s the thing: Palm Oil production is generally highly destructive to the habitats of Orangutans and everything else that lives near them. Yes, there is a growing industry of responsibly sourced palm oil, but like everything else, it’s often difficult to know exactly how a particular product is sourced because it’s usually only the expensive brands that advertise their sources and even fewer of those go really the extra mile to be 100% certain that things are being done sustainably.

NPR also did a story recently about fishermen in Hawaii who aren’t US citizens, so they can’t leave the ship and have the potential to be highly mistreated and abused. Upon investigation, your average corporation could only say with certainty that the sources of their fish operate legally, which is absolutely true in the letter of the law. But it’s the principle that really matters.

In college, I had 2 friends who went Vegan. One was studying Environmental Science, the other studied Chinese, but was otherwise a very free spirited hippie. Both took the Vegetarian and Vegan route because of ethical and environmental reasons. UVA is very good about knowing their sources, encouraging sustainable habits, teaching us about the craptastic ways that food is produced across the country and around the world. At UVA, you can be safe in assuming that eating Vegetarian or Vegan is actually the right choice.

But, once you leave a closed environment like college, that’s when things get tricky.

First of all, the labels on food are always misleading. This is because the FDA doesn’t have very strict regulations for certain words and doesn’t have any regulations for others. There are lots of companies hoping to cash in on the growing “sustainable food” industry, so they’ll happily certify anything and never be overly specific about what it means.The food company itself is first and foremost trying to market their product, so of course they’re going to shed the best light on it that they can.

Yes, there are plenty of companies who ARE doing the right thing, but it’s easy to drown them out if a consumer doesn’t do their homework.

My main point is that when it comes to the environment, you really don’t have to go Vegetarian or Vegan to help the planet. This is because it is possible that you’re sourcing your all vegetable diet from producers who really don’t care about the effects they’re having on the planet while the carnivore next door gets all his meat from ranchers who do everything in their power to protect the environment and make it better for future generations.

It’s all about actually knowing your food and what it’s doing, not just following the hype.

And if you’re Vegetarian or Vegan because you don’t like the idea of hurting animals for food, I think it’s even more imperative that you know your sources because you don’t want to be killing animals through other harmful ways.

And, before anyone starts shouting for me to get off my pretentious high horse and that some people can’t afford (literally: money-wise) to purchase free range chicken and carrots, please understand that I can’t either. I go to my local grocery store and buy whatever is on sale as I cringe at the environmental impacts of these purchases. But that’s life.

I do, however, need to get my butt to the farmer’s market some Saturday so that I cry over paying $4/lb for free range antibiotic free chicken (or whatever it is) because I’m very concerned about the itching my husband endures after eating most of the common brands.

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