The whole question of how to eat ethically can seem like a giant project. Do you focus on local? Organic? Grass-fed? Fair Trade? How do you find it?
We all are starting to wake up to just how huge an issue food is. Greenhouse emissions from CAFO livestock, local food security, soil depletion, water issues - the whole thing is complicated. Now I'm not going to tell anyone what to eat - personally, I think the most important thing one can do is adapt to one's personal and local realities. That is, what I eat, here in the cold, rainy, rocky northeast, on a farm, in a Jewish family of six with strong culinary ties to Asia is likely to be very different than the right and ethical diet for a poor, African-American family in DC, or a Hispanic ranching family in New Mexico, or upper-middle class Swedish Lutheran suburbanites in Wisconsin. What you eat is shaped by multiple factors - where you live, what you can afford, what you care most about, what culture you come from, what you grew up eating, how much water you have, what your climate is, how hard it is to get the kind of food you want, etc...
But I will tell you what we eat, and how we made our own choices. If you are struggling with these issues, and trying to figure out what to eat, I strongly recommend some books. First and foremost, Peter Singer and Jim Mason's _The Way We Eat_ - this is *the* book that works its way through the ethical decisions inherent in food. I don't agree with all their conclusions, but they really try to take all factors into account. I also like nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow's _This Organic Life_, and Michael Pollan's _The Omnivore's Dilemma_.
But if you don't want to wade through all those pages of material, the basic issues, in, what I think is the correct order of priority, run like this to me.
1. The health of my family - which includes the long term health of my family on a liveable planet.
2. Greenhouse gas emissions
3. Fairness for Farmers and farm workers (which includes support of local agriculture and fair trade)
4. Local food sovereignty - that is, making sure my region can support its population if necessary
5. Increasing biodiversity, the range of crops we rely upon and the range of species
6. Careful use of water and soil
7. Humane treatment of animals
Now these are my own priorities, and you might put yours in a slightly different order. But I think it is helpful to have sense of what you are trying to accomplish by buying food, and to have a way of making decisions. All of these are high priorities, and often, a choice brings all of the above together. But if I'm trying to decide between sources, this list makes it a little easier. And no, I don't ask fifty questions of everyone I buy food from - in fact, I rarely have to ask anything at all. The great thing about getting to know the people who produce my food is that I do know what they do. I'm lucky enough that I often get into their barns and fields. If you don't have those options, I'd say building a relationship with the farmers in your area, or even a long-distance relationship with a small farmer who grows what you want to buy (check out http://www.localharvest.com/ for sources).
Now what does this actually mean in terms of what I eat?
1. Absolutely no feedlot meat - period, no discussion. We do not buy meat that has ever been in an industrial feedlot. The greenhouse emissions of CAFO meat are one important reason - feedlot cows are worse than SUVs in many cases. But that's not the only reason - such meat isn't good for my family. The heavy doses of antibiotics used in meat production, the issues of contamination, antibiotic resistant forms of bacteria and evidence that we aren't doing everything we can to prevent mad cow are other reasons. It isn't good for my family, and it isn't good for the environment. It is also lousy for the farmers who lose their autonomy to corporate farming requirements, and to the slaughterhouse workers. There's really no upside here. It is cheap - but only in the short term. Feeding my family food that nurtures anti-biotic resistant diseases or potentially carries prion diseases is not cheaper in the long term. Global warming turning my neighborhood into a desert is not cheaper.
We keep kosher, and we only buy kosher meat, or butcher our own poultry in a kosher manner. But we do *not* buy industrial kosher meat, like Empire chicken. My own research into practices suggests that there are no large kosher producers that meet anything like my standards for humane treatment, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, etc... So we don't eat their meat.
Now I've had farmers argue, fairly enough, that where they live there aren't enough local markets to keep them in business and that they have no choice but to sell to the available packers. This is true, and a real consideration. But I only have so many food dollars (and we don't spend a lot of them on meat - see next point), so my choice is simply to choose only local, kosher meat that has been raised in a manner I know to be acceptable, and that supports my neighbors. I can't support everyone, so I give my dollars to those I think are most important.
If served meat whose origins I don't know by family or friends, I eat it, as long it meets our standards of kashruth. But if I go to a restaurant, I try to ask where the meat came from, and indicate that my family would gladly order different things and pay higher prices if the meat were not factory farmed. I don't order the chicken if I don' t know where it comes from, and I try to prioritize vegetarian options when visiting others. Ultimately, if I couldn't afford to raise my own animals, or buy locally produced, humanely raised, grass-fed meat, I wouldn't eat meat.
2. Much less meat than the average American diet, and what we do eat, raised mostly on grass, scraps and other non-human food.
We eat meat, most of the time, on our Sabbath - and not every sabbath either. We consider meat an occasional luxury, a pleasure and a useful flavoring. We are obviously not vegetarians, although we eat a vegetarian diet 20 meals out of every 21.
Up to a point, I believe that reducing meat consumption is extremely valuable. But there comes a point in analyses of polyculture in which animals occupy important niches, making use of plants and scraps that an all plant-culture cannot. So our goal is to create a diet that includes animal foods, but limits them to what can mostly be produced on our scraps, garden wastes, pasture, and other things people can't eat. To me, that means some poultry, which can be fed mostly on our scraps, pasture and small quantities of feed, geese, which mostly eat grass, and potentially goats and very thrifty sheep that can produce useful food on our steep pastures from land that is not especially well suited to tillage. If I did not keep kosher, I might try raising pigs in my woodlot on acorns and roots, and rabbits on my weeds, but neither animal is edible to us, so that won't help.
We also raise endangered breeds of livestock, giving priority to old style, landrace animals that were bred by their environments and human choice to survive and thrive in specific environments, without the need for heavy shelters and large quantities of food inputs like feedlot animals. 80% of our meat is raised here, on our land, and I suspect that number will rise as we add larger livestock. Our goal is to eat only meat we raise, but for now, we buy some kosher slaughtered lamb from a friend, and that's pretty much it.
I'm not happy about killing animals to eat. But neither do I believe that we have the luxury of not using our land optimally to produce food - there are simply going to be too many hungry people in the world. Given that pasture can also help support endangered wildlife as well, I think that diverse, native pastures are a good choice on land that shouldn't be tilled, like praries and rocky wet places like mine. And I also believe that if we are going to practice agriculture, we have a moral responsiblity to use the land as wisely as possible, getting the most food from the land we do use, so that what we don't can be left open for wildlife. So I think that *for us* it simply makes sense to add some animals to the mix. And since there is no retirement home for extra roosters, male sheep, etc... it makes sense for us to make use of them. We try and ensure that the animals we eat have the best life possible, and die quickly and as painlessly as possible. It isn't perfect, but it is the best system we've come up with.
When we do eat meat, we use *everything* on the animal - when we butcher a chicken the parts of the animal we don't use are fed to the dogs, or cooked down into broth. A chicken might make a meal of roasted chicken, a meal of leftovers, the last meat on teh carcass will be shredded and used in soup from the bones. The heart will go to the dogs, the liver be frozen and saved to be broiled and mixed with eggplant and spread on sandwiches some Shabbos. Any extra broth will be frozen for cooking, extra fat mixed into the dog or cat's food. Every bone is cooked down, and the heads are eaten by animals. The blood, when drained, is diluted with water and used to fertilize our soil. We believe that if an animal sacrifices its life for us, we should honor it by not wasting any of it.
Many of our neighbors hunt overpopulated animals like deer, and if we didn't keep kosher, we would do the same. I think eating animals that have lost their natural predators is better than letting them die of starvation. We do take some venison and rabbit scraps from our neighbors and feed them to our dogs, using the above principle. I know many people who eat only sustainably harvested, hunted meat, and this is a good ethical choice, IMHO, even though it isn't ours personally. I find the suburban prejudice against hunting to be particularly odd - I've met plenty of people who complain endlessly about the Canada geese on their ponds, but won't eat them, while they cheerfully eat feedlot chicken.
BTW, our dogs and cats eat the highest quality, organic diets we can find for them, but we're still not happy about this. We're working on finding some better options for them - because pets have an enormous ecological footprint, and feeding them factory farmed meat isn't a good idea either. Cats are obligate carnivores and must eat meat, dogs have some options, although I've not found a vegetarian diet that I've liked for them. But we're considering what we can do about this.
I believe vegetarianism is also an ethical and wise choice - it just isn't ours. If we didn't grow food, and couldn't find reliable sources, I'd be a vegetarian.
3. Very little fish. This is very sad for me, because I grew up near the ocean. My grandfather fished, my step-BIL is still a fisherman, and I grew up eating lobsters and clams straight off the boat. But I've changed my policies on this one for several reasons.
I don't eat shellfish or bottom feeders because I keep kosher. I rather miss them, but I'm trying not to cherry pick my faith, to accept that even if the reason isn't clear to me, that I've accepted a certain set of parameters and I should live by them. My husband eats shellfish when he's out and it is offered to him, but then, if it were up to him, we wouldn't keep kosher at home. This is our compromise.
I don't eat fish from overfished stocks, particularly the large predatory fishes like tuna. I do this partly because they are overfished, and also to reduce mercury exposure. I have an autistic child, and there's some evidence that autism may be related to mercury exposure. Many people focus on mercury as a preservative in vaccines, but I suspect that my years of enthusiastic fish eating means that there is a considerable amount of mercury in my tissues as well, and as a still-breastfeeding Mom, I want to minimize this.
No freshwater fish from local rivers and lakes - the levels of contamination with PCBs are simply too high, and again, there are other people affected by the pollutants I take into my body - my kids. The national recommendation is that women of childbearing age and children eat *no* fish from our rivers, which is unbearably sad and horrible.
Otherwise, I eat fish occasionally, taken from protected areas, and from species not terribly overfished, but we are misusing the oceans so badly that even fish from species not overfished are depleted because their natural food is disappearing. One study suggests that in my lifetime, there will be no more fish to eat, effectively. The largest category of fish we eat (and this is very occasional) is wild caught salmon, bought directly from a cannery that serves native people who catch salmon in traditional ways. We order our yearly supply from them, and pay a fairly high price for it, but consider it worth it. And once a year, I eat sushi. That last isn't ethical, it is just a pleasure I'm not quite willing to do without.
I want to look into aquaculture myself, because we all love fish here. I wouldn't mind life without meat at all, but I do miss fish.
4. Eggs are all home produced - if our hens aren't laying, we don't eat them. That way, I know they've been produced with minimal grain based feed. Milk we're hoping to home produce shortly, as we're currently converting our garage to a goat barn. Until then, we buy locally produced milk from farmers who grow most of their own feed and hay. We haven't completely eliminated the use of grain in animal food, but we're keeping it to a minimum. We live in an area that is excellent for grassfed meat and dairy production, and we want to encourage those industries. The dairy farms around me are struggling, and many have gone out of business in the last few decades - we want to see them keep going.
5. For grains and beans, always organic, as local as possible, and direct from farmers whenever possible, in bulk. We store a lot of food, and it is important to me that our stored food be ethically chosen.
We can buy whole corn locally, from a farmer who is certified organic, so we do that. But few other sources of grains and beans are really local. Some organic beans we can get from PA, but our wheat comes from Nebraska. And once you get that far away, sometimes we consider fair trade over in-nation. There are a number of nations where export agriculture, as Peter Singer documents, provide much needed income. So, for example, instead of buying California Rice, which is raised in irrigated land in a place without enough water, we buy fair traded rice through our coop which is bought directly from a cooperative in South India. If at all possible, we buy direct from farmers, if not, fair trade (if from outside the US), or from small farmers with good labor practices who sell directly.
Because beans and grains can be stored for long times and shipped dry, they are much more efficient to transport over long distances. So while we don't eat meat or vegetables from far away, generally speaking, dry shipped materials, particularly shipped by rail, are pretty good from an environmental standpoint.
6. Produce is almost always local, homegrown first, then local organic, then local. We have the luxury of being pretty absolute about this - we have huge gardens, room for fruit trees and live in an area with a lot of small local producers. So, for example, my oldest son, who eats 3-5 apples per day, can indulge his pleasures entirely locally. We eat our apples first, since the only ones we are getting in any quantity yet are very early apples, then we buy local, starting in late August. In October, we pick at local orchards 15-18 bushels of apples, and store them at our house. When it gets too warm for our cellaring, we buy local apples, stored in refrigerated cases over the winter from our coop - the latter aren't optimal, but this is only for a month or two each year, and most apples in July have been refrigerated. Apples are the only thing we have to have - otherwise, we eat what is in season and available.
We do buy some organic citrus, some fair trade, organic bananas, the occasional pomegranite (a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah), avocado or mango, all organic and fair traded. But this constitutes a tiny percentage of our produce - very small quantities. Mostly, we eat what we have growing, what we store in our root cellar, and change our diets - so our salads might start out as wilted dandilions with garlic vinagrette in april, go on to spinach with radishes, steamed asparagus and baby carrots in may, flip to mesclun mixed with scallions and pea-pods in June, over to purslane, baby chard and arugula with cherry tomatoes and sweet onions in July, A classic full summer salad - tomatoes, peppers, onion, carrots in August and September, go to spinach with roasted beet, chopped apples and sunflower seeds in October, turn to potato salad with sorrel and wilted greens in November, a salad of mache and arugula in December, steamed kale with goat cheese and dried cherries in January, sprouts and steamed chunks of root vegetables in February, and the first cuttings of grown-indoors Minutina and mizuna with apples and carmelized onions in March.
We even grow some "tropical" stuff at our house. We have figs in large pots that are starting to produce, several citrus plants including a keffir lime (used in asian cooking for its leaves), meyer lemons and limes, and some tropical herbs like curry plant. This doesn't give us as much citrus as we want, but the occasional special treat of lemonade or lemon cake makes us appreciate it that much more. We're lucky enough that these things will grow fairly well in our sunny bay window, cleaning our air and providing us with a great deal of pleasure, along with some fruit and herbs.
7. Local beverages. We drink local apple cider as our juice from late August until January. We put up some local grapes as grape juice for our sabbath and have experimented with making current and wild grape wines. We drink local, kosher wines whenever possible, and local beers. We make our own soda, with mostly local flavorings (we buy an occasional hunk of ginger for gingerale), on the rare occasions we drink it - mostly at birthday parties. We do buy some concentrated, organic orange juice as a treat, but mostly, we try to drink water, homemade herb teas and the juices of local fruit.
Not quite a beverage, but the other thing besides apples that my autistic son is addicted to is popsicles. We make popsicles from local, organically grown juices whenever possible, and sometimes make them from concentrated organic juices, although this is not as good a choice, since it is shipped cold. And sometimes, we run out and buy locally made, sugary crap popsicles made from artificial flavors that we can buy at our local convenience store. We're not perfect!
I do drink some "real" tea. Because spices, chocolate, tea and coffee are light, shipped dry and high value, they are excellent trade items, perfect for fair trade. I buy fair trade, organically grown tea in bulk, to minimize packaging, and make it in a reusable tea ball. I consider this money well spent - tea plantations and coffee plantations that are managed well are good crops, low water, reduce soil erosion and can enrich poor people. We buy our vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and other high value items the same way. We don't drink coffee ourselves, or would do the same. We'd rather use less of these items, pay higher prices, and ensure that the value gets to farmers.
8. Local sweeteners whenever possible - honey and maple syrup are big ag products around here. Whenever possible, we use these instead of sugar. We do buy some organic, blackstrap molasses, shipped from far away, as well, but are trying to prioritize local sweeteners, as well as eat fewer of them.
We buy organically produced, cold pressed canola oil from just over the Canadian border, and some California organic olive oil. We also make butter from local cream (oddly, I've not found any butter more local than PA). We also use the extra fats from our occasional meat meals to cook with - for example, extra fat I pull out of the chicken can be used to make fried potatoes. This is probably really bad for you, but it tastes quite good, and it means that we're making full use of the occasional meat meal.
9. As little processed stuff as possible, and that in bulk from people we like. As I said, we're not perfect. If I'm going to eat junk food, which I do occasionally, I'd rather eat potato chips from the local potato chip factory. It still isn't good for me, it still shouldn't be a big part of my diet, but at least it is local. And I buy my cheerios in bulk bags (we call them "inferios" because they really don't taste nearly as good as the real thing, but the kids will eat them fine) from my local bulk store, and rationalize that at least I'm supporting a friend. For those of you with very young children, don't start them cheerios - they are like crack for kids ;-)!!!
When we visited family in Boston, we went to Ye Olde Pepper Company (everything is ye olde where I grew up - don't ask ;-), the oldest candy company in the US, and bought lollipops to offer as potty training bribes to my still-training 3 year old and perpetually training disabled eldest. The sugar and artificial flavorings are from who knows where, but at least I'm supporting them. I grew up in Salem, and ran in and out of their store after school for years. So at least I can help keep them in business - it isn't perfect, but it is kind of sweet.
I'm trying hard to lose weight right now. The reality is that a world of scarcity can't afford people who eat too much food. I've been letting myself off the hook on this one, and it isn't eithe healthy or wise. But the good thing is that almost all the choices I'm making right now are better for me, as well as the planet.
That's what I eat. It is complicated. It is a pain sometimes to figure it out. But it is worth it - because I'm voting with my dollars for the kind of world I want to live in, and because I believe that most of the time, the right choice for the planet is the right choice for my family as well. My job, as parent, is to keep myself and my family healthy, and to make sure there's a decent place for my grandchildren to grow up.