Category Archives: Food

Sustainability of food choices

Can eating fruits and vegetables be hazardous to your health?

Canada’s Globe and Mail published an article about a Canadian Cancer Society conference bringing leading scientists around the world to advise on whether restrictions should be imposed on spraying of pesticides on agricultural land.  The premise is that the large amounts of bug and weed sprays used on farmland may pose a heightened risk of several types of cancer for farmers, their rural neighbours and to all of us who eat foods containing pesticide residues.  Cosmetic use of pesticides on lawns and gardens is already restricted in some Canadian provinces and municipalities.  The article quotes Connie Moase, with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, Health Canada’s watchdog: “In terms of any risk, health risk, Health Canada will only approve pesticides that do not pose a health risk, provided that the label directions are followed.”

I found the article especially interesting because it highlights so many dilemmas and barriers that get in the way of making a clearly informed, sustainable choice:

  • Are organically grown foods a better option than pesticide sprayed food that is cheaper to grow, with significantly higher yields, making it more readily available and affordable;
  • Should we now be eating less fruits and vegetables because of the potential health risks or do the benefits outweigh the pesticide exposure risk?
  • Given the apparent magnitude of the relative risks of pesticides used on lawns and gardens versus agricultural lands, why is the former banned and the latter not?  Is it simply a case of picking the low-hanging fruit versus tackling an area mired with controversy and inherently more serious trade-offs?
  • Do we accept the government’s assertions that approved pesticides are tested extensively and are not a health risk at the exposure levels when used as directed?
  • Or do we side with those groups who oppose the use of pesticides, who remind us that “these are strong poisons designed to kill if used as directed”.
  • Should we be concerned about what happens if directions for use on the labels are not followed exactly?
  • Can pesticide evaluations conducted on one chemical at a time account for unforeseen and untested real-life interactions between the variety of chemicals used on any given farm?
  • Should we trust the results of epidemiological studies linking pesticide use to higher incidence of cancers in farmers seriously, or can we safely discount them as “circumstantial evidence” that may actually be due to other risk factors?
  • Can we truly trust the results of testing on mice and rats, in experiments funded by the pesticide industry?

Etc. etc. etc.  You gotta read the article and form your own opinion— ‘cause my brain hurts.  It’s not easy being “sustainable”.

Is sustainable food consumption a myth?

There can be no doubt that our planet is under severe strain from economic and social development that maintains inefficient production and consumption patterns and an uneven distribution of resources.  The richest 20% of the people in the world consume nearly 75% of the planet’s natural resources.

It’s been said that if all the people of the world were to consume like those in affluent countries, we would need the equivalent of 4 extra Earths, putting unbearable pressure on our ecological balance.  Add to this the fact that the world’s population is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, with nearly all of the growth projected to take place in developing countries. 

You may believe that it’s just not possible to produce enough food to feed the global population. You would be wrong. Food wasted in affluent countries is estimated to be up to 50% of all that’s harvested.  Moreover, unequal distribution of food is the main reason why there are a billion undernourished and starving people in the world today.  The huge amount of food waste also corresponds to serious wasteful impacts on fuels for transportation, chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, water and generation of methane. 

Sticking with hunger and poverty for now, here are just a few sobering statistics reported as part of research conducted in 2007 in support of the Millenium Development Goals:

  • In 2005, the worldwide expenditure on military equipment and services was $1001 billion US (that’s more than a trillion US dollars!)
  • In 2006, North Americans spent $37 billion dollars on pet food and pet care products

Contrast that with the following:

  • An estimated $54-62 billion dollars would halve the number of people subsisting on less than a dollar a day by 2015
  • An estimated $29.6 billion dollars would halve the number of people suffering from hunger and halve the number of children suffering from malnutrition by 2015

Shocked and awed?  Although some see these statistics as controversial and lacking rigour, this is just the tip of the iceberg highlighting the urgency of breaking away from socially unjust vested interests and promoting and practicing sustainable consumption worldwide.


The Meat-Lover’s Sustainability Dilemma

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is set to announce that “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

By contrast, transportation contributes 13% of our greenhouse gas footprint.

Greenhouse gases are released throughout the meat production cycle, during land clearing, making and transporting fertilizer, feed antibiotics and hormones, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and emissions from the animals themselves, which is a major proportion of gases emitted. Refrigeration and transportation of the meat for processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and to the consumer are also huge contributers.

Population growth and changing consumption patterns in developing countries will continue to increase pressure on global food supplies and food security. Livestock production has increased all over the world as demand for meat rises. The resulting increase in water scarcity, land degradation and soil erosion are key threats to productivity of farmland, not to mention the effects of loss of biodiversity associated with deforestation for high-maintenance agricultural land. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that increases in global temperature adversely affects soil fertility, reducing crop yield. Water runoff from livestock farming can cause significant contamination and eutrophication of surface and ground water if the solid waste generated is not managed properly. Farming subisidies (like other poorly applied subsidy programs) tend to create an uneven playing field, further exacerbating the problem.

Possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals include genetically engineering strains of animals that produce less methane and ammonia. Organic farming is not a feasible option globally, due to the comparatively low productivity and yield.

We all know by now that eating less meat is better for your health. A price on carbon could cause the price of meat to rise, people would eat less, and, at the same time, reduce associated emissions of greenhouse gases and other adverse environmental impacts. This might just be the added incentive that ardent meat-lovers like me need to make another personal choice that contributes to the sustainability of our planet. Given the magnitude of the impacts, reluctantly, I’m adding eating less meat to my list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Making sustainable food choices

Granted, the global food supply is not one of the most significant contributors to climate change and emissions of greenhouse gases. However, in the spirit of maintaining awareness and doing what we can as individuals to mitigate the impacts of climate change, becoming aware of more sustainable food choices is a relatively easy action to take. I don’t believe in randomly curbing consumer choices (I love having access to the most exotic foods from around the world!), but just knowing about the factors that impact those choices can help to shift our mindset in meaningful ways.

It seems perfectly logical to start with organic, in-season, locally grown food. This addresses the importance of reducing the transportation distance from the farm to your supermarket and minimizing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, foods grown in climates and soils that are naturally most suited for their production can have a much lower environmental impact than local products grown under artificially enhanced conditions, even if they’re shipped across great distances. There are other factors to keep in mind to ensure that you’re reducing the carbon footprint of the food you consume:

  • irrigation requirements
  • methods of harvesting, processing, preservation and storage
  • minimal packaging, or at least reusable and recyclable packaging
  • climate and growing season
  • mode of transportation (air, water, rail, etc.)
  • fair trade and sustainable agriculture practices

Your method of cooking can negate all the effort you put into sourcing your food, if you’re not conscious of the energy and water consumed in its preparation.

Finally, coming soon to a supermarket near you— a carbon label for your food products.