The issue of food has been one of my biggest environmental concerns for a while now.
Not only because it’s so important for the environment, but really because it’s just important, period.
Food in our society
In our modern western society, we’ve become disconnected from the significance of food. We simply don’t think about food any more. At best, we think about whether food is healthy, or fattening, or expensive.
We forget that for most of human history, the primary concern of all humans has been getting enough to eat. Food has always been important from a spiritual perspective, too.
Christians have just finished (or are now finishing, depending on what calendar you use) the season of Lent, one of the great fasts of the church year. But in America, hardly any churches actually keep a fast any more; if they do, it usually involves simply “giving something up” for Lent, usually something like chocolate or Coke or computers.
It no longer means a true fast from food.
But the early church followed strict dietary recommendations of abstaining from meat, dairy, and alcohol–foods that were more expensive, more luxurious, and more enjoyable.
The Orthodox Church still follows this regime, recommending a vegan diet, not only for Lent, but for numerous shorter fasts as well that amount to nearly half the year. But for the most part, modern Christians have disconnected the idea of fasting from the reality of food.
It’s too physical, too basic, too obvious to have a spiritual value in our minds.
Eating and waste
But the truth is that eating is one of the primary ways we interact with ourselves and with our environment. We are part of the food chain, whether we like it or not. Eating is the most central, basic way that we play a part in our local ecosystem.
Except, of course, that for most of us, the food we eat has nothing to do with our local ecosystem. The average plate of food in America has traveled around 1,500 miles before it’s eaten, creating a lot of waste along the way.
It uses fossil fuels at every step of its existence: as fertilizer while it’s growing, as fuel while it’s traveling, as plastic in packaging, and as heat when it’s cooked. Our food system is one of our top contributors to global warming, to pollution, and to our disconnection from the environment.
So how can we eat in a way that’s more sustainable?
First, of course, you can eat local. Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon wrote The Hundred-Mile Diet, a book about their experience of eating locally for a year. They defined local, obviously, as within a hundred miles from their home.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote about a similar experiment in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Reading about families who tried this experiment will make you realize what an undertaking it would be as a way of life.
Eating local means cutting out many foods that are ubiquitous in the American diet; it means eating in season, when many city-dwellers don’t even know what foods are in season when. And it means reducing waste.
But the benefits are extraordinary.
Changing your eating habits will change the way you think about yourself: you will recognize that you are part of a system, part of nature, dependent on the patterns of nature and the grace of God.
If you want to go even farther toward sustainability than local eating will take you, you can also eat vegan. Meat, no matter how free-range, organic, or sustainably raised, is a more energy-intensive way to obtain food than fruits and vegetables.
The lower on the food chain that you eat, the less energy was required for your food. It takes a lot of grass to make a cow, but it takes only sunlight and soil to make a potato.
And even though it takes a lot of potatoes (around 4,000) to equal the calories you’d get from a cow, the land required–and the drain on the land–is still less for the potatoes.
Finally, if you want to be extremely green, you can eat raw. My friend Stephanie is a great example of this. She doesn’t eat completely raw (although she does eat vegan), but she’s come up with a simple way to reduce how much she cooks: she turns off the gas service. She saves money by not having a gas bill, but since her stove is gas, she also ends up cooking a lot less.
She has an electric hot plate and a skillet, but they’re more difficult to use. So she creates more raw meals. Raw food is healthier, and, of course, it doesn’t use any energy to cook.
Of course, you can use these ideas sparingly without becoming an environmental nazi about your food. You can eat more local food; you can skip meat once or twice a week; you can eat an occasional raw meal.
Or, you could combine all these ideas and eat only local, vegan, raw food, all the time. Which I guess that would make you a hunter-gatherer–or actually, just a gatherer. To be honest, I think it would also make you hungry all the time. At least it would make me hungry. But hey, at least cleaning the kitchen would be easy.