Six degrees of separation: Your food, yourself and the environment
Could watching what you eat be more than just a personal choice?
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 15:12
WHOSE FOOD IS IT?: Consumers may face increasing environmental suggestions about their food choices. (Photo: J-P F/Flickr)
No one likes being told what to do -- but when it comes to their own bodies, people are sometimes willing to make the sacrifice. Think, for instance, about cutting red meat out of your diet to lower cholesterol, or avoiding milk if you happen to be lactose-intolerant. We self-impose dietary restrictions all the time for personal reasons, so why should restricting one's diet for environmental reasons be such an onus in so many consumers' eyes?
I ask this question in response to another question raised by an editorial in The Stanford Daily last week about Stanford Dining's effort to increase student awareness about the environmental impacts of their food choices: does the administration have a right to "push" environmentally sound choices on the students, especially if those students aren't so convinced that their food choices have much environmental impact at all?
According to the 2007 EPA report "Trends in Greenhouse Gas Emissions," an analysis of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 1990-2007, agricultural activities account for 5.8 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That may not seem like much in a country as big and energy-hungry as the United States, but the significance of food choices amplify in those communities that operate on smaller and more sustainable scales -- in a more environmentally-conscious country like Sweden, for instance, researchers found that eating accounted for 25 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions. And we're not just talking about meat here: although red meat seems to be just as bad for the environment as it is for your cholesterol, rice is also a culprit for greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for an average of 6.8 Tg CO2 Eq. out of agriculture's total contribution of 413.1 Tg CO2 Eq. to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The bottom line is that, in a small community, food matters -- especially if that community has already made strides in other sectors to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. In a new effort to reduce consumer contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, Sweden's recently instituted labeling program demarcates the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by certain food products from breeding to processing to packaging. The goal is to get consumers to be more aware of their food choices on a comparative scale; the system encourages consumers to choose one product that emits less over another that emits more, rather than requiring them to understand all the nitty gritty mechanics of the admittedly complex issue. Consumers also receive broad recommendations about which food choices are more sustainable, taking some of the heat off individual food brands.
This program has, of course, raised much controversy over market fairness and the protection of the farming industry, in addition to confusing and guilting some reluctant consumers. Sweden, however, is not alone in facing such opposition. Stanford University, another relatively sustainable community much closer to home, has also instituted food recommendation policies and received similar mixed results. While Stanford Dining does not get into the numbers (although perhaps this would be more effective for the more quantitatively minded Stanfordites), it does provide recommendations for sustainable eating, and, from the looks of it, has been on the receiving end of student resentment against the intrusion of the administration into their personal lives.
Are these recommendations infringing on students' right to personal choice? To me, this is symptomatic of the way of thinking that has retarded our progress as a nation in reducing anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Eating is indeed a personal choice for those lucky enough to have a choice, but the personal and the environmental are by no means mutually exclusive. This worldview that compartmentalizes the environment as something separate from the individual is a much larger problem than agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. It extends across sectors to all parts of humanity's relationship with the natural world at large. It speaks to our unwillingness to connect ourselves with the world upon which we depend for survival, a reticence that will almost definitely not be to our evolutionary advantage.
I'm not naive enough to believe that a change in this kind of thought will happen right after you read this blog. The separation between self and environment is just too entrenched in our cultural beliefs. But I'm not about to give up hope for the day that someone will look at a fatty, juicy steak and think: "That might just be as bad for the environment as it is for my heart."
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