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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 economy....to 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.

                2. Personal view: it's a lifestyle, and in order for it to be sustainable as a lifestyle, it can't be all-or-nothing.

                  Living in Toronto, I pick my battles. Certainly I eat avocados, and plenty of other imported produce in the winter too. But I try to source local whenever I can. This year that meant getting a CSA because my local grocers are not reliable in having local produce even in season (it can certainly be found, but it takes time I don't have).

                  I take a harder line on things like beer, where not only the beer itself but the packaging weigh a lot (and really beer should be a local, fresh product. Not to mention that I happen to love our local beer, so this one is easy for me). I try to buy local wine too.

                  A few years ago we ate farmed salmon probably at least every two weeks. Now it's maybe once or twice a year (I do eat canned which travels quite a way of course). I figure that is still a huge improvement.

                  By being a "foodie" you are probably much more sustainable than the average Joe because you want fresh, in season produce for taste reasons anyway.

                  1. You can be sustainable without being a complete locovore. If I didn't eat salmon from Alaska, I wouldn't be able to eat any at all, because the rest is farmed... etc. Remember Julia's motto: "All things in moderation." ;>)

                    1. It is great that a thread is being allowed having to do with food and lifestyle choices relative to sustainability.

                      The challange is the carbon footprint of the food we eat--carbon released to tthe atmosphere that leads to Global Climate Change. That footprint comes from the burning and use of fossil fuels in the production (including petroleum based fertilizers), processing, and transport of products. Somewhat simplistically: Goods requiring mechanized production, synthetic fertilizers, processing and packaging, and intercontinental air shipment are the worse; your organic home garden is the best. Eating local should help, but may not if that food reflects a thousand hand tractors and a thousand pick-up trucks as opposed to a large, efficient operation in, say, the next state.

                      Rice and cattle are problematic: rice paddies and cattle produce methane, a greenhouse gas 10 times more damaging than CO2. People are working on the paddy problem. Methane from cattle rumen (we're talking constant burps, not farts) is worsened by the grain diets in the US. There is ongoing research on cattle diets that will reduce their gas emissions.

                      thunderbug, your life experiences in Eastern Oregon sound like the perfect (unfortunately unattainable) ideal for Americans--one that fits with the original Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian society. Unfortunately, the Hamiltonians took the day with a strong central government; and the rest, as they say, is history.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                        An interesting point.... we can all improve our Carbon Footprint by eating less beef as one fairly easy choice.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          "There is ongoing research on cattle diets that will reduce their gas emissions."

                          Any sources or links for this research? It's a topic I'm very interested in.


                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              Excellent links, Sam. Thank you very much.

                        2. There was an interesting story on NPR about this issue. It talks about how much energy is used to produce and/or ship products and labeling products so consumers can make an informed decision about what they are purchasing.


                          1. I think the fact that you are asking this question at all proves that being a sustainable foodie is possible - being conscious about provenance and how products have been handled in production and distribution is half of the battle. I agree with many of the other posters that you don't only have to eat locally to fit what you've described as sustainable -- there are still many small, 'local' producers in any town whose practices border on horrific. It's more important to be a *conscious consumer* in my opinion. I'm a member of Slow Food http://www.slowfoodusa.org/, an organization which promotes many of the same values you and others have discussed in this thread, and while some take issue with SF as perhaps becoming a bit too commerical, I think they're one of the few who are doing a good job of raising awareness, like you've done here. Thanks for posting this.

                            1. i think that being a sustainable foodie is something to shoot for, and people should try to be more aware of general sustainablity of foodstuffs-- that said, guilt is not good for anyone, so i don't beat myself up over eating japanese udon & seaweed in MSP occasionally, or buying a salad in january at my local co-op. you will note that a great majority of locovores live in southern cali, or the mediterranean, so they have year-round local vegetable bounty. if it were me, i would still indulge in a few luxurious foods that have to travel to get to me, and make sure i enjoy them to the fullest-- if the food travels a long road and then goes to waste, THAT is the crime!

                              one of the wonderful things that is happening in my area as a result of more people thinking about sustainability is that local artisans are producing some very good products-- using the op's cheese example, i can buy local mozzarella at the farmer's market, and restaurants all over town are using an awesome local chevre on their menus. if you seek out and support local artisan producers, their farms/businesses will survive and their products will improve, and you will be provided with good, fresh, local products to replace the ones you used to buy imported.

                              some sustainability issues are geographic. for example, the op in the pacific northwest can probably go apple-mad in the fall, eating as many apples as you want, making a ton of cider and applesauce preserves-- celebrating and making the most of your local products.

                              many people think it is more important to get food locally than to get it organic. for me in MSP, i think it is very important to support local organic farms rather than local conventional farms, because the runoff from the farms near me affects everyone the whole length of the mississippi river and into the dead zone in the gulf. if more farms in MN were sustainable, maybe there wouldn't be blue baby alerts in iowa, for example; if there were more sustainable farms along the whole mississippi, perhaps you could eat local wild-caught seafood and river fish in new orleans. i can try to impact my local food economy in a practical way, with an eye on the bigger ideals. someone living in georgia might shop totally differently, buying food from a conventional farm which is local rather than having their carrots shipped from cali--do what makes sense for your own area.

                              the deeper you get into sustainability issues in a culture that is increasingly global, the hairier these issues can get-- i would try to be a conscious consumer without being a guilty one-- if the majority of your foodstuff comes from local markets & your own garden, you should be able to enjoy the occasional belgian chocolate, relish the cuisine of an uncompromising chef who flies in his butter from his hometown in france, or joyfully season your stew of homegrown vegetables with a pinch of spanish saffron--without guilt.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: soupkitten

                                I absolutely agree with the point that "a great majority of locovores live in southern cali, or the mediterranean, so they have year-round local vegetable bounty"-- I live in southern NY state, and I do belong to a CSA (veggies from about 1.5 hours away from me, since no one can affordably farm in Westchester county just north of NYC), but it only delivers vegetables from late June to Thanksgiving. But living on purely local food would be an exercise in frustration-- turnips and kale three quarters of the year! I have to admit, when I read about someone in Vermont eating purely local, I was dutifully impressed, but truth be told, that was a one-year experiment (and source of material for a book if I recall). But as others have said, I try my best, and try to be aware.

                              2. I respect your desire and I have a similar desire. But it is next to impossible to eat that way unless you live in California or a similar Mediterranean climate. Time magazine had an article about it a few months ago, specifically the tradeoff between local foods and organics foods.

                                1. How lucky we all are to be able to stress out over food like this.

                                  I think a lot about sustainability, and the more I think on it, the more I feel it is better viewed as a process rather than a destination. Beating yourself up over details is not worth your time. Instead, appreciate the things you love from far away as special treats, and if you really enjoy them, learn to raise the goats and make the cheese yourself.

                                  1. Moderation is key. Absolute locavorism is not a sustainable lifestyle, as life without European cheese, coffee, chocolate, spices, and salt is simply not worth living.

                                    Sustainable is not just about local. By eating sustainable, non-local food, you are still doing your part in the fight against chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, soil erosion, water pollution, ground pollution, GMO crops, seed patents, aquatic species extinction, the elimination of family farmers and food artisans, hormones and antibiotics in animal feed, and animal cruelty.

                                    You should try to eat local whenever possible, but if the transport of your otherwise sustainable food consumes a bit of petroleum, it's nothing to lose sleep over.

                                    1. It really depends on your standard for living "a more sustainable life." "Sustainable" has different definitions for different people, as it is obvious with your problems with your boyfriend's definition. Does it mean not using salt? Does it mean not eating crops that have been raised with water transported from hundreds of miles away? The list goes on and on....

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: raytamsgv

                                        <"Sustainable" has different definitions for different people>

                                        Wish I could remember the name now.. Someone I have heard speak on "sustainability" issues was fond of pointing out the limitations of the word. He wisely pointed out that we would be concerned for anyone who said he had a "sustainable" relationship with his wife.

                                        1. re: andytee

                                          The problem with the word "sustainability" is probably not its limitations but that it has none. It's pretty much a Red Queen word. It means what you say it means.
                                          E.g.: a very good wood resource from a forest in Malaysia that renews itself quickly could be said to be "sustainable," but is it a wise choice if the harvesting and milling of that timber, and the shipping of it to a specific job site for a high rise in Manhattan a "sustainable" decision? We can drink our Fiji water while we admire it.

                                      2. I think the keyword here is "choice." Whether one decides to take drastic steps like following a 100-mile diet or simply making a conscious effort to cut out peaches, plums and blueberries during the winter, one must realize that even small efforts to eat locally and seasonally are admirable.

                                        The three main reasons for doing so are:

                                        - our consumer dollar stays within our communities, strengthening our economies, not to mention keeping our growers, producers and food artisans from bankruptcy;
                                        - nutritionally, the fresher the produce, the more nutrients it packs;
                                        - ecologically, the energy used to transport enormous amounts of food in refrigerated transport trucks from opposite ends of the continent is astronomical; buying locally cuts down on the carbon dioxide emissions that are incurred by such transport.

                                        It would be unrealistic to expect Canadians, for instance, to stop eating citrus fruits, avocados and bananas. In the same vein, there's no reason to give up our beloved coffee and chocolate, although with these products there is the option of purchasing only those brands using only raw materials that have been fairly traded. In fact, it would be disastrous to the economies of many third world nations if the trading of commodities such as coffee and chocolate were suddenly cut drastically or curtailed. No one would want to create such a crisis.

                                        At the IACP convention in Chicago last month, eating locally was one of the more prevalent topics on the schedule. The consensus among well-respected speakers and panelists, including Marion Nestle, Michael Ableman and Samuel Fromartz, was that everyone must make their own choices, and these choices are often made spontaneously, once we've entered into the grocery store or supermarket: "Should I buy local or should I buy organic?" There is no generic right or wrong answer - it's an individual's decision and, regardless of how much or how little that individual chooses to eat locally and seasonally, his/her decision should be respected, and should be applauded.

                                        1. I think the values you grew up with in Eastern Oregon are more "sustainable" and "environmentally" sound than a lot of the high-flying idea that get thrown around that individuals have a hard time placing into action in their day to day lives. Your family lived by the ideals of conservation, preserving the land that you depended on and cooperating with your community for the common good, living with the seasons. Even urban dwellers were aware of local and seasonal differences before long-distance transportation.
                                          All we have to do is think that way again in our individual lives and we can affect real change. The number of farmers' markets has more than doubled in just a few years because that's the way more and more of us want to shop. Because of this, there are real changes in the massive Farm Bill this year for the very first time that will allow such things as greater acceptance of food stamps at those farmers' markets and more land being set aside by the American Farmland Trust. Home gardening has boomed, especially vegetable gardening. Organic products have gone from hippie-dippie to mainstream. Artisanal cheeses, breads and other products are commonly available because we have created a market for them. We're setting policy with our purchasing dollars more than we are with any letters that we write or protests that we join.
                                          You can have a personal impact. If you go to a big store, even Whole Foods, to buy your cheese, chances are you won't have much effect on their purchasing decisions. But if you go to that small cheese shop you like and speak to the owner, say you like that locally produced goat cheese (instead of the French one) and would like to try more local cheeses, they'll stock more. You'll buy them, serve them to your friends, who will patronize the shop which will become successful as will the cheese makers. Pretty soon, maybe a bakery, coffee shop or wine store will open next to the cheese shop, and then some other small shops. Soon you'll have a cluster of small stores nearby with local products that you can buy, perhaps walking, biking or not driving very far. Maybe a farmers' market will set up on Saturday. Most of your food, seasonal and local and from small community businesses, can come from there so your indulgences from far away aren't anything to worry about. Who can live without Parmesan, coffee, bananas, lemons and chocolate? This happened on a couple of streets in our community and I can do most of my marketing on foot now or driving only a mile or so.
                                          Your family had to buy a tractor, appliances, clothing and other necessities that weren't produced locally but they bought them from community merchants. Just don't be wasteful. Build your community and support the farmers and small businesses who supply it.

                                          1. I think it's better for people to eat more fruits and vegetables regardless of where it came from. With the high rate of obesity, diabetes and heart disease we all need to have a healthier diet and that usu includes more fruit and vegetables than most of us eat now. I am not in favor of limiting my choices to local produce. Variety is more beneficial.
                                            As for seafood and cheese enjoy them in moderation unless consuming such things support illegal activities or lead to endangerment.