For most of my life I never thought much about what I ate. Generally I’ve been dependent on others – first my mother, now my wife – for good meals. My foraging philosophy has been simple: When I feel hungry, I search for something close at hand and do whatever is necessary to make it edible. Like the Checkers ad says, “ya gotta eat,” so I do.
However, in the last few years I’ve started to think about what I eat, and why. I’ve spent most of my scientific career studying tropical forests and agricultural ecology, and have realized that farms and forests are interdependent, and that both are intimately tied to what we eat. Food is not just necessary or tasty or an occasion for socializing; it’s also our connection to global agriculture, and through agriculture to the transformation of the planet’s ecosystems. Choosing what kind of food we eat is part of choosing what kind of world we want to live in.
So, here’s what I think are five good reasons to eat food – not just any food, but making choices to eat some kinds rather than others. And also, one reason that I don’t think is so good, at least by itself.
1. Stopping Deforestation
In a 120-page report we did last year on the drivers of deforestation, we found that today, it’s the expansion of commercial agriculture that’s the main cause of tropical deforestation. And not just any agriculture, but particular kinds – e.g. beef cattle and soybean growing in the Amazon, and palm oil plantations in southeast Asia. In our globalized world economy, eating these foods, or the foods one step further along the food chain from them (e.g. baked goods containing palm oil, or livestock that are fattened on soy meal) increases the demand for them and thus stimulates their expansion.
2. Reducing Global Warming Pollution
The tropical deforestation associated with these foods is the source of about 15% of global warming pollution, but about the same amount comes directly from agriculture. Ruminants – i.e. animals like cows that digest plants in a special digestive organ, the “rumen” – emit large amounts of methane, a global warming pollutant that is about 25 times stronger than CO2 on a per-molecule basis. (It comes out of both the front and hind ends of the cow, and from their manure as well.) This means that beef consumption is a multiple cause of global warming – from deforestation for pasture, from deforestation for soy as a cattle feed, and from the cows themselves.
3. Improving My Health
This is probably the best-known reason for choosing some foods over others, and there’s more and more medical evidence that backs it up. You don’t need to go exclusively organic or become a vegetarian (and I’m not); even simple changes within a conventional U.S. diet can make quite a difference. Not to pick on beef in this posting, but a 20-year study involving over 100,000 Americans was just published a few weeks ago, and showed that the more red meat you eat, the higher your risks of heart disease, cancer and dying.
4. Protecting Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Health
Since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring fifty years ago, we’ve realized the threat from pesticides in what we eat, but sometimes we forget that if there are dangerous amounts that got into the food, there must have been a lot more applied in the fields in which that food was grown. In fact, farming is one of the most dangerous occupations there is, and pesticides are one of the reasons. As you’d expect, farm workers who apply pesticides are especially vulnerable. So to me, the biggest reason to look for organic food is not for my own health; it’s for the health of those who produced the food for me.
5. Protecting Habitat for Birds
So far most of this has been about foods I’m eating less of, but there are also positive choices you can make. Shade-grown coffee, which creates a habitat similar to a forest, has a lot more biodiversity than coffee grown without shade. It’s a habitat where many of the songbirds that are now appearing at our feeders have been spending the winter. If it’s not only certified as “bird-friendly” but organic and fair-trade too, then buying it helps not just warblers but people too.
And a not-so-good reason
And finally, a reason that I’m not all that convinced about: so I won’t feel guilty. I have nothing against being innocent, but really, it’s not about me. It’s about the planet and its people and all the wonderful critters with whom we share it. So, while it’s nice, although currently difficult, to find and buy palm-oil-free cookies in the grocery store, it’s even more helpful to support the great campaign led by Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen for deforestation-free cookies. Choosing food as if the planet mattered is good, but joining with others to change it is even better!
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