A while ago, I wrote a sustainability buzzwords guide promising a second installment all about food. Better late than never, right?
Vegetarianism vs. veganism
In my junior year of high school ion 2011, I watched the documentary Food Inc. and have been (more or less) vegetarian ever since. Vegetarians abstain from the consumption of meat. Some vegetarians also avoid eating food that has been cooked on the same grill as meat, gelatin (contains animal collagen), Caesar dressing (sometimes containing anchovies), broth and other grey-area products. Similarly, pescatarians only eat fish meat. My favorite response when I tell people I don’t eat meat is, “Oh, so you eat fish then?” Is fish not meat? Maybe for some people it isn’t, but for me and the most widely accepted definition of vegetarianism, it is.
Finally, veganism is typically both a diet and lifestyle completely free of animal products, from food to clothing and beauty. In terms of diet, vegans abstain from meat, eggs, dairy and any other animal byproducts. As for lifestyle products, vegans avoid leather, wool and other fabrics extracted from animals and opt for cruelty-free beauty products, or products not tested on animals, but might contain animal products. Chloe wrote a great piece on the difference between vegan and cruelty-free you can check out here! However, always check a reliable source for such claims as pretty much anyone can put labels on their products with no credentials.
One of the best ways to reduce your “carbon footprint,” or impact on the environment in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide you produce, is to decrease your intake of animal products. Fret not, you can simply reduce your intake or mix and match different lifestyles to find out what works best for you. Remember, we don’t need everyone to be perfect vegans but rather hoards of people making an effort can make a big difference.
This is where things get confusing even for the well-education consumer. Many people regardless of diet might buy organic and/or non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) in an attempt to reduce their carbon footprint. However, labels can be misleading. On paper, organic food and meat should be grown and raised without pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other such agents. But in reality (at least in the United States), it’s a lot more complicated than that with loopholes and exceptions and different labels from USDA and third party certifiers. Rather than trying to explain it myself, here are a few good resources:
- How to shop for real organic products
- Four categories of organic product labels
- Frequently asked questions about organic labels
- Food labels explained (also contains other labels such as fair trade and grass-fed beef)
I feel a serious misunderstanding of what GMOs are is a big problem when it comes to public education on industrial farming. Genetically modified does not necessarily mean “bad for you.” In fact, there are scientific studies that prove there is no human health risk stemming from GMO foods. Look at your dog. That sausage dog with stumpy legs and a chestnut coat was a wolf selectively bred (i.e. genetically modified) over thousands of years to make man’s best friend without the use of potentially harmful substances. Even The Non-GMO Project page confesses the effects of GMOs are inconclusive at best. Finally, if you’re not already convinced this isn’t an exact science, check out the master Wikipedia post of genetically modified food controversies.
Finally, let’s talk about animal agriculture. I’ll try to keep this brief but as with all these issues, there is a vast amount of information online you can read more on yourself.
As a lot of you know, I work in commercial fishing. In fact, the fishery I do most of my work in (Bering Sea/Aleutian Island pollock) is the largest in North America and one of the largest in the world while also being certified sustainable since 2005. All the fisherman I work with are big advocates for eating only wild-caught fish, and there is no reason you shouldn’t (at least over farmed fish). Fish farming has very few benefits with a lot of downsides, the biggest drawback being it takes an ample amount of wild-caught fish to feed farmed fish… so why not just eat the wild fish? Here is a good guide on choosing sustainable fish.
In the labels section of this post, I mentioned grass-fed beef… but why is it so important? Feedlot cows are usually fed a diet of corn and grain, which their unique stomachs are not evolved to digest, leading to health issues requiring antibiotics in their feed. Grazing cows also benefit the environment by spreading their manure to fertilize the soil and can be healthier for human consumption. However, like with all food labels, if it’s important to you, do your research on certain companies as labels can mean different things. In this case for example, be wary that “grass-fed” may not mean “grass finished”: a loophole where cows are fed grass for a lot of their lives but stuffed with grains to fatten them up weeks before slaughter.
Lastly, let’s talk about chickens! Buzzwords like cage free and free range are often employed to promote animal welfare, but what do they really mean? There is a wide range of exact definitions, but cage-free birds may be able to move about freely with at least 1 square foot of space each but usually don’t have access to outside spaces. Free-range chickens have access to outdoor spaces, but it’s not specified for how long or what kind of space requirements are in place. While there isn’t a big difference in nutritional value, it’s a small price to pay for the birds to live a more comfortable life before meeting their maker.
Wow, that was a lot of information, but I hope you learned something! Here are a few take-home messages:
- The best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to cut back on meat (particularly cows) and dairy products…
- … but if you can’t, find other ways to make your diet more environmentally friendly with organic food, wild-caught fish and grass fed beef
- Labels can be misleading. These companies feed off lack of information and fear, so question every claim you see when you do your next food shop. Be skeptical
- A great place to get local, organic food is a farmer’s market. You can usually ask farmers about their harvest in person (and perhaps even visit the farm) to see if their values align with yours
Photo by bantersnaps.