Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sustainable Food: It's All in Your Head, And on Your Plate

Our neighbors at the extreme-green Path to Freedom here in Pasadena recently posted an important reminder about the sustainable use of food. In one simple graphic they have captured several of the many factors that go into sustainable food use.

The first item on the list, Buy it with Thought, itself embodies several factors. I don't know what the Dervaes family had in mind when they wrote it, but to me the following questions come to mind in order to buy food "with thought:"
  • Will my family like it?
  • Is it healthy for us or is it something we should limit (e.g., high or added fats and sugars?)
  • Is the food organic, local grown or both?
  • Is it fairly traded or certified?
  • Is it heavily processed?
  • Is it chemically augmented?
  • Genetically modified?
Most of these questions go unasked most of the time, and the result, I daresay, is that we as a community support a food industry that it is not in our long term, personal self-interest to support. It is sometimes just too easy to compromise one's longterm interest in sane public policy when faced with an immediate need like hunger. But I have found that the more we practice thoughtful eating by thoughtful grocery shopping, the less likely we are to compromise and eat something sustainably-vile just because it is handy.

For me, Cooking with Care means using both sustainable and healthy cooking methods. The PTF folks make use of a solar oven regularly -- which is beyond my personal commitment level. But we choose to use natural gas for our stove and oven, since it is a more efficient and less "carboniferous" (lower CO2) method for cooking than an electric range. If we ever had a surfeit of solar electricity on our hands it might make sense to use an electric range; but we only do 70-90% solar annually, so not yet.

I also like the common sense reminder Don't Waste It (food); that's a no brainer, of course, since trashing edible food costs the local household budget needlessly, but it also affects the larger ecosystem. Where a community or country is particularly profligate, the waste can really add up to a level that moves food production into a non-sustainable place.

The other half of waste, however -- at least in my mind -- comes down to what one does with the parts of the food one does not eat. Trimmings from vegetable preparation, for example. The potato that went soft in the back of the bin. Even the green beans which no threat or entreaty could convince the three-year-old to eat. Can we avoid wasting them? You bet!

A small bin on the counter and simple compost bin in the yard or on an apartment patio (yes they do have a sealed compost bin for just such a situation) is a great way to reduce landfill mass and avoid wasting the excellent fertilizer and soil builders one might otherwise throw away. For a longer rant on composting, click here.

The final concept -- Homegrown is Best -- is both one of the easiest to achieve at some level and hardest to achieve at a significant level. But it is an excellent aspirational goal -- especially since you know that the food is organic, definitely local and fair trade. More interestingly, I have found I am far less likely to be wasteful with food that I have grown. I know how long it took to get that bowl of broccoli or pan of fried potatoes, and you will see me turn positively miserly when it comes to using up food I have invested months of time in!

In the end, most of these concepts come down to awareness; consuming while mindful of the real inputs and consequences of one's consumption, and of the options available to be a sustainable element in the natural system rather than a destructive and disruptive factor.


Terra home composters said...

My local municipality recently implemented a green box initiative program where all food waste including tea bags, coffee grinds, etc...are placed into a mini green bin and picked up curbside every other week. The program has recently caught speed which is great to see!

geos said...

nice article

Bailey said...

Roger, thanks for the reminder! We do try to be green. I love my compost pile and so do my veggies.

If we could only convince a sizable number of people to stop buying "convenient" food from Big Agricom, the change would come of its own accord. Unfortunately, humans are lazy and selfish, so I don't see that happening in my lifetime. Sigh...