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May 16, 2007 12:24 PM

Is it possible to be a sustainable foodie?

My boyfriend and I have been trying very hard to live a more sustainable life. We have our own garden, we try to buy local produce and we support local farms. However, when I came home after visiting my favorite cheese shop with Buffalo Mozzarella di Campania and French goat cheese in hand, my boyfriend was less than happy. I realized that I have a serious conflict of interest. How can I pretend to live a sustainable life while still enjoying my favorite foodie indulgences? Do I have to give up my fresh salmon from Alaska, my avocados from California and worst of all, my cheese from Italy and France to live a sustainable life?? How can I reconcile this problem?

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  1. Is sustainable always synonymous with buying locally and the locavore movement? I thought sustainable was kind of a catch-all for just being as environmentally aware as possible. Anyway, I don't know where you live, but I'm sure you've thoroughly explored your local cheesemakers, meat purveyors, etc. If you've done that, and you've got a garden, I really don't see what purpose it serves not to eat avocados. Perhaps it's more important to look into whether the salmon is caught in the politically correct way or the coffee is harvested sustainably than exactly how many miles it travels. If you have a good cheese shop nearby, you should certainly explore all the great American cheeses even if they're from other states.
    What I'm trying to say is, live mindfully, but don't forget to enjoy life.

    1. I find it quite admirable that you're trying to live a more sustainable life. I try to buy healthy, organic, local and seasonal whenever possible but find that I cannot always do that. I sometimes want a tomato salad in the winter. I do enjoy my Spanish cheeses and ham. I don't think I'll find too many locally grown avocados in New York. And -- sigh -- I do love foie gras.

      I think what you're doing is great, and you should continue to do it as much as you can. But don't kill yourself over your imported cheeses and fresh salmon. Nobody is perfect. I think it's important to exercise responsibility over things like your health, sustainability, etc. However, life is too short to fret about every single thing.

      1. Its a question of trade offs. Being aware of the consequences and realities of what you choose to do is the key. This is true, though, of everything; not just food. Driving a car that gets lower gas mileage because it was more affordable up front. Driving instead of riding a bike. Buying something wrapped in non-recyclable materials at a market because its closer than the market where you can get the same product in recyclable materials. And so on.

        You can only reconcile it by making conscious choices about what is most important to you and no one else can tell you what that is or should be. I'm guessing you live in the States and, if so, we're a society that is very much based on gratification now and easy access to things regardless of how far they have to come for us to have easy access to them. We're more or less brought up being taught that that's how things ought to be and it can be very hard to unlearn it. I applaud you for even thinking about it, don't underestimate how huge a first step that is.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ccbweb

          Thanks so much for all of your very thoughtful comments. To be honest, I was worried that there would be a much more negative reaction. Living a more sustainable life has become very important to me and I think a lot of that comes from where I grew up. I grew up on a small farm in Eastern Oregon (it wasnt a large scale farm... we just had enough cattle/veggies/orchard trees/chickens to feed ourselves and some to share with our neighbors). I grew up mostly eating the deer and elk that we hunted and salmon from the river on our property, or else the things we grew and raised. We never ate seafood because we lived too far inland and it just wasnt accessible. It just seemed like a very natural way to live. Then, I went to college in Boston and I was thrown into a very different environment. You would think that hunting, fishing and growing your own food would be harder than going to a market, but if you are trying to make the smallest footprint possible, its actually incredible hard! (As many of you know, I'm sure) So, I guess right now I'm still grappling with that huge change in lifestyle. I do appreciate your words of encouragement and I think that I will still occasionally enjoy some foods that may not be considered sustainable, but when I do, maybe I can offset it some other way. This has definitly been an adventure, but it has been so rewarding. Thanks for helping me remember that a balance can be achieved!

        2. The professor of an environmental biology class that I took in college was an expert at taking the impact of humankind's (is that an oxymoron?) impacts on planet Earth. He would take details down to the minutiae of how the tire imprint left by one's bicycle tire track could begin the erosion process by allowing water to pool in the little cube-shaped trackmarks, then overflowing, thus creating a mini-channel for water to continue to work on this area over time, which would ultimately lead to a larger cavity forming which would ultimately tear away at the surrounding terra, and so on...

          Point being, the professor was truly concerned with how even the smallest things that we do can cause a great difference when put on a grand cumulative scale. Millions of bicycle tire tracks offer multitudes of opportunities for erosion to unvegetated top soil. But at the same time, the professor did admit that bicycles are without a doubt the most efficient means of transportation. In fact, he did ride a bike to the university almost all of the time. Even he had to make compromises on a daily basis.

          The sourcing of foods has gained alot of attention lately, primarily because of rising fuel costs threading through just about everything in our lives. Many suspect the war in Iraq is about controlling oil, and not about taking it to the terrorists. Global warming is no longer considered by most to be a half-baked theory by most - more like a condition that is worsening by the moment and can no longer be ignored. Regardless of one's opinion on such things, one has to take life into perspective, and balance what is right for you with what is right for all concerned. What can you do to lighten your load on this planet, while still having some things to sing about?

          You owe it to yourself to enjoy life - so few in this world have the luxury to do so. All these things you mention that are imported from where ever can still be enjoyed. The questions you need to ask yourself is what should I enjoy, and how often and how much? Not too long ago, fresh produce in the winter was unheard of at any price outside of the temperate zones. Ask your grandparents, and they will tell you how canning was an annual ritual. Today, we have the luxury of having plums in December and watermelons in April. Is it responsible to partake in these previously seasonal treats knowing that these goods probably are more well-travelled than Monarch butterflies? You have to answer that question yourself. As long as you balance different aspects of your life, where you feel you have incurred a net savings from your lifestyle, smile and be very thankful that you have the great fortune to make such choices.

          1. I don't understand why buying only locally-produced food is considered "sustainable." Should Midwesterners, for instance, never eat seafood? Should Alaskans never have healthy vegetables raised elsewhere? Nothing personal, but I just don't get it.

            7 Replies
            1. re: mpalmer6c

              Hopefully no one takes any personal offense from your question. The notion is that the shipping and, therefore, fossil fuels, etc that are involved in moving foods a long distance create an unsustainable situation for the environment and the people in it. So, in the strictest sense or interpretation of eating in a completely "sustainable" way: yes, people in the midwest should only eat seafood that comes from local rivers or lakes or ponds and people everywhere should grow what they need locally. The idea is not that people shouldn't eat a healthy diet, but rather that they should eat a diet that doesn't require a lot of transportation and doesn't deplete natural resources, but focuses on resources that can be renewed. Anyone who wishes to be eating in a sustainable way should probably avoid certain seafood altogether because its being overfished.....and so on and so on.

              Its a fairly major thing to try to think about and it would, for most people, require a quantum shift if the way they look at the world much less the way they shop and eat.

              This article from the San Francisco Chronicle is a fairly straightforward look at the issues:

              1. re: ccbweb

                I live in Central Illinois. I try to eat as "local" as possible, but it does have its limitations. And I'm not convinced that "local" is always the best choice. Let's take the OP's example of cheese. Surely, for me, cheese made by Kraft (based in IL) is more "local" than artisian cheese from France or Italy. But more "sustainable"? I doubt it. Milk from factory-farmed cows shot full of artificial hormones, produced in air-polluting factories, and sealed in non-recyclable plastic does NOT sound more "sustainable" to me!

                1. re: Anne

                  I'm with you on this one: local is best, but not to the exclusion of all things that taste good. I'm not about to give up chocolate, even though it comes from far away and it isn't produced under ideal environmental and labor conditions. We have a global some extent, the economy has been global for a long, long time (transatlantic slave trade, for example).

                  Your tiny choices about imported cheeses are just that: tiny. More important are the big choices: public transit over driving alone, fuel efficiency vs. gas guzzling, efficiency in the appliances you use every day, and so on.

                  1. re: Anne

                    You've hit on a really important point there. The question is "sustainable." Usually that's going to coincide with "local" simply because once you remove shipping and transport you've removed a big portion of the problems with sustainability of food. As you point out, though, manufacturing techniques are also a key factor and cannot be ignored.

                    Whether something tastes good doesn't really factor into sustainable (except, tangentally, that it matters whether you'll even eat it, because if you won't eat then you're not sustainable :) ). That's the big trade off. If we want Swiss Chocolates and French Cheeses and Spanish chorizo, etc etc etc then we have to deal with the consequences and, perhaps, try to find better ways to ship things.....or, try to find ways to make similar prodcuts closer to home.

                    1. re: ccbweb

                      "once you remove shipping and transport you've removed a big portion of the problems with sustainability of food"

                      I respectfully disagree with that statement. My primary concerns with our food system specifically involve food production: plant monoculture that is dependent on petroleum derived fertilizers, toxic pesticides and herbicides, excessive irrigation, ecosystem disruption, elimination of heirloom species, slave conditions for workers, seed patents, and Genetically Modified crops as well as meat production that requires CAFOs, hormones, antibiotics, waste, pollution, disease, and institutionalized cruelty.

                      I feel that the whole locavore movement has perverted priorities, so that people care more about the carbon footprint involved in food tranport than the systematic destruction of traditional food production.

                      In my experience, traditional, sustainable food always tastes better than factory farmed food. In the case of perishable foods such as produce and meat, local and seasonal usually tastes better.

                      1. re: Morton the Mousse

                        I think that the things we both pointed out are compatible. Certainly the things you list are essential.

                        1. re: Morton the Mousse

                          Morton, you make a good point, but I should point out the obvious localvore response, which is that when people buy local, they are going to know their food source and thus be more aware of GMO's, CAFO's, poor working conditions, and the like, and will be both more able and more likely to organize to change them.