Sensible Sustainability


It seems I'm having the same conversation a lot these days, which is a good thing. Even I get tired of talking to myself sometimes.

People discover my blog, my writing, my values, and they often pepper me with questions:

  • "Which is better organic or local?"
  • "Is organic really better for you?"
  • "Why should I support local fishermen if they're not fishing sustainably?"
  • "Is it okay to buy ____ (fill in the blank with any fish)?" 
  • "Which is worse threat: mercury and PCBs or not getting enough omega-3s in fatty fish?"
  • "Why is heritage breed better than conventional?"
  • "Should I feel bad if I can't afford organic, local, sustainable, food? Or heritage meats?"

Russ Parsons of the LA Times writes about this desire for simplicity in his provocative piece entitled Organic Label Doesn't Guarantee Quality or Taste.

While I like and respect Russ, and am grateful he opened this discussion, I think the article suffers from the same quest for simplicity that he skewers. He doesn't quite go far enough into the murky waters that surround all the questions consumers have. It's not enough to scold us for wanting simple litmus tests without giving us tools or advice for making better decision. Therein lies the rub.

Quite likely he is aware of this and simply could not do it in the space of one column. But this IS the dialog we must be having. If we have reached a moment in time which is unique or a "tipping point" where consumers want to make changes to their food buying habits in alignment with their values, then we have to be prepared to open up a Pandora's Box of complex issues.

Are we up for it? Where is the guidance to help us separate the wheat from chaff? Some would like a single source expert to make it easy for them. "If I buy what Michael Pollan says is okay then I'm golden." I'm not sure Pollan would agree and I'm pretty sure that would be insufficient.

With respect to seafood - we have wallet cards. We have iPhone Apps. We have Mark Bittman telling us it's too complicated for him. He winds up giving us very Pollanesque advice, eat less fish, only what's sustainable and only where you can trace its sourcing. I paraphrase here but you get my point.

Simplicity Loves a Villain

In the quest to "win" rather than to "inform" or to "understand" we often want simple black and white arguments. What would a Western be if no one wore the black hat?  We need to acknowledge that if a huge industrial producer goes organic, that will have a net effect of reducing the negative environmental impacts downstream. It doesn't mean we stop supporting local farms or we only buy organics at Wal-Mart. Neither does it mean there is no good to come of that producer going organic.

I've been bashed by locavores for not giving up rice. Well, I ask them, what wine did you drink with your local meal last night? And where did the pepper in your mill come from? You know it can get silly. And no one "wins" in these score-keeping arguments. In fact, my rice is not locally grown. I am responsible for some carbon impacts because my rice comes from Koda Farms in California. They are a true family farm, farming in responsible, organic ways, and keeping an heirloom varietal rice in the marketplace. It's fantastic rice I really enjoy and wholeheartedly support. 

My local farmers who grow in a "everything but organic" way - meaning they do it but haven't paid for the increasingly questionable label, also are not themselves locavores. 

So does that mean we through locavore out the door? Sensible sustainability says we keep it as a principle and make decisions to buy locally grown, harvested food when we can.

Forget the Studies, Embrace Incompetence

I embrace my incompetence. I don't know everything and can't know everything. I want to give you tools, not be your expert. Maybe your goals are different from mine anyway. But even if I thought I had all the answers today, it'll change tomorrow. 

Rather than get distracted by whose studies prove or disprove the relative nutritional merits of organics, I'd like us to put that decision in the context of our larger goals and values. I actually don't care what those studies say. What I care about is the reduction in the use of pesticides, and in supporting local farmers that I think also share that value and who produce good food. I don't care how "perfect" a food is (and I have had many discussions with folks from all sides on these); if it's not delicious, I don't want to eat it. There I agree wholeheartedly with Russ.

The challenge is that once we've opened our minds to the issues, we are quickly sucked into much larger debates than we might have thought we were signing on for. And, we can't know what the right things are with any finality, because things change and we have to be prepared for living with some incompetence. Nowhere is this more true than with seafood. Even if one could absolutely nail every bit of data today enabling you to make a perfectly sustainable choice, it will change tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll have new data that will tell us something about the health of a fishery, the destruction of a method or the heinous practices of a fish farm that we thought was sustainable. Does that mean we give up, and just eat whatever we are served or whatever is in the fishmonger's case?

No one who is generally interested in making better choices is really going to be comfortable reverting to a head-in-the-sand approach. 

Sensible Sustainability

I like to encourage is what I call Sensible Sustainability. Here are some core concepts and examples:

  • We must accept that we are engaging in a way of eating that will include a certain amount of uncertainty. Are local hothouse tomatoes better than those shipped from FL? Is it better still to wait until local tomatoes grown without the impacts of a hothouse are naturally ready? 
  • We can, and should, make incrementally better choices every day. Is it true that Frozen Alaska Halibut is better than local endangered Cod? That depends, what is "better" to you? Frozen Alaska Halibut is better than Halibut from other non sustainable fisheries. If you prefer local over wild with carbon footprint, Haddock is a better choice than Cod. 
  • Guilt does not make good gravy. Dogmatism is not a good dinner companion. Rather than strive for perfection, or judge those who "fail" we should engage in Sensible Sustainability. I'm not interested in a lecture by a cigarette smoking, leather-wearing vegetarian about the ills of meat.
  • We can choose sustainable, organic, local, ethical foods - even if they sometimes represent competing goods. Competing goods pose harder choices than those between good and evil. Sometimes sustainable trumps organic, sometimes local trumps organic, sometimes organic trumps both.
  • Sustainability can be economic, environmental, or social. Decisions can, and should, be made with all of these in mind. I am not interested in shrimp that is cheap if it's destroying both the environment and the social structures in Thailand. Serial pollution and job creation followed by contraction is the cost of your cheap shrimp.
  • We live in a culture that encourages either/or thinking but both/and is much more instructive. It's not either organic or local but both organic and local that would be ideal. I'd rather see organizations like CleanFish support domestic producers who reduce by catch than an international aquaculture firm I do not know and cannot meet. Transparency and traceability both are key.
  • Some of these new food principles matter more to some people than other principles. Each of us needs to decide what is more important for us. Waste contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than many other choices people urge us to make. How can you reduce food waste? Eating a meat-free meal once a week can have a bigger impact environmentally than other choices. Do you have to go completely vegetarian? No. Do you have to compost all food waste? No. But you can be conscious about reducing your waste.
  • Sharing is good. We will enable better decisions for our health, our families, our values and our environment if we help each other sort through the good info and bad, and if we are open to discussing how and why we are making the choices we are making.
  • Ask questions. Of your butcher, of your fishmonger, of your server. I asked what the server could tell me about the beef in a recent steak frites meal. That his butcher's name was Kevin is not the answer I was looking for. But if more people ask and more people make better choices (like avoiding the skate wing on the menu) they'll stop buying it. 


Sensible Sustainability Steps you can Take

1. Start with baby steps. I call it the What About Bob approach. Go for low-hanging fruit like no more Bluefin Tuna. It's nearly extinct, no one disagrees. 

2. Begin a dialog with your butcher, your fishmonger. Tell them what you prefer and why. Ask them how they can improve traceability of their meat or fish. 

3. Tell your grocery store managers, owners that you want them to provide more sustainable, organic, local options. 

4. Reduce waste. People want to focus on Recycling, but there would be less garbage to recycle if we bought less and consumed less. Everyone's heard of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Those three Rs were meant to be addressed in order of importance. People who want to sell you stuff to be green are trying to sell you stuff. Do you need more stuff? 

5. If you're concerned about the environment, make a meat-free meal one day a week. Much of the world eats meat-free or nearly so every day of the year. You can do it one day a week. 

6. Involve the family in the growing if you have garden, the cooking, the shopping. The more people are involved, earlier on, the better it will go. Kids are often more open minded than we give them credit for.

7. Allow for imperfection, remember - embrace incompetence. So you try some new recipe for a meat-free meal and you don't like it. Doesn't mean you ditch the idea. 

8. If you have kids, help them devise a research project like tracing the ingredients in one of their favorite foods. They'll probably enjoy being like that toddler that won't stop asking why. 

9. Take the family to see Food Inc. or End of the Line or Fresh.

10. Talk to other people about what resources they've found, who they turn to for help and advice, what tools they use. 


I'm going to begin posting a Sensible Sustainability Tip frequently, maybe each day, if I'm good. Look for it up in that sidebar box "Featured".

How Lo(cal) can you go?

How about your own lettuce on your fire escape or window box?