Saturday, September 26, 2009

good, better, best

A warning: this post is only for people who are interested in at least thinking about how their food choices affect the environment. I try to avoid being preachy about lifestyle decisions, and have been scolded a time or two for pontificating on the merits of certain choices, so if you aren't interested in environmental issues, now is the time to check Facebook. I'm going to say that some choices are better than others. You have been warned.

With that out of the way...My understanding of what making eco-friendly choices in terms of food has been complicated considerably in the last month or two. To start with there is...

Good: Organic
A lot starts with reading food labels. "Natural" doesn't mean anything because it isn't regulated by the government; USDA certified organic does.

Why organic is good: For produce to be certified organic, it must have been grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, bioengineering, sewage sludge, or irradiation on land that has been chemical-free for at least 3 years. The inputs and pest control measures allowed for organic growers are much less detrimental and disrupt surrounding ecosystems less. For example, where we live on the Oxnard plain there are hardly any birds at all because we are surrounded by conventional farms that basically nuke everything in their soil (good bugs and bad bugs alike), meaning there is nothing for the birds to eat (except, ironically, the crows, who attack our crops).

Why organic is complicated: While USDA regulation of "organic" labeling has made it possible for consumers shopping at a supermarket to have some window into how their food is grown, it only deals with a limited part of what goes into farming: inputs. "Organic" says nothing about the distance produce travels, the scale on which it was grown, or the labor practices involved in growing it. I just finished reading Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (by Julie Guthman) which looks at the industrialization of organic growing. Companies like Earthbound Organics can grow single crops on hundreds or thousands of acres (not good for the environment) using the same - often exploitative - contract labor as conventional growers and still get the organic label, as can many of the makers of US soy milk who import organic soy beans from China (using a heck of a lot of oil). Bottom line: to quote Guthman - "I am not convinced...that organic agriculture as it is currently constructed provides a trenchant alternative to the interwoven mechanisms that simultaneously bring hunger and surplus, waste and danger, and wealthy and poverty in the ways food is grown, processed, and traded." Not all produce with the organic label is of questionable merit, but the label doesn't tell you enough to make a good choice.

Better: Local
"Local" generally means grown within 100 miles of where you eat it, and people who try and eat only local foods (like Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Vegetable Miracle) are "locavores".

Why local is good: Because food is coming from closer, less fossil fuels are burned getting it to your plate. For the same reason, it will (usually) be seasonal rather than being shipped from another hemisphere where it is currently spring. Eating local also often builds community because the best place to buy local foods is a farmer's market (although Whole Foods is sort of getting into sourcing locally...and charging higher prices - though that's not new). What labeling doesn't tell you when you pick something up at a supermarket, connecting with a local farmer might.

Why local is complicated: I'll admit, until this morning I had never heard anyone take a shot at local. I nearly fell into the cabbage I was weeding while listening to the KCRW (local NPR affiliate) show "Good Food" when the segment "Are locavores getting it wrong?" came on. The guest being interviewed was James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. His critiques of local? Eating strictly local ignores the complexities of agricultural and environmental impact on a global level. Less fossil fuels may indeed go into shipping a tomato from a warm climate than are used in growing them locally in hothouses in colder climates (although this makes me question not the virtue of eating locally but the idea that one needs a fresh tomato in the middle of winter...) But his biggest point is about meat. One can eat locally and organically and still be eating meat. Which brings us to...

The best: eating vegetarian

Why eating vegetarian is good: According to McWilliams, meat production produces 1/5th of all greenhouse gases, consumes 70% of the water in the western U.S. and accounts for over half of the nitrogen fertilizers used in the U.S. Even local, grass-fed, organic, sung-to-sleep-with-a-lullaby cows need 8-10 acres of land each...less than ideal on a planet with a growing population and shrinking arable land. Also, only 40% of a cow is used in meat production, and a significant amount of energy is used disposing of what doesn't get eaten. The bottom line: the energy savings for the average American meat eater giving up meat once a week are equal to the energy saved by eating locally for the whole week.

Why eating vegetarian is complicated: I suppose if eating vegetarian is best, eating vegan is probably bestest(*sigh*). That could ruin my wonderful discovery that what I'm already doing was the best thing to do! I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

failures of imagination

Some days, more things happen than others. Today, for instance, I:
1. bought a ticket to go back to Chicago for a long weekend
2. was nearly run over by a frightened deer while hiking
3. remembered something important that I had started to forget.

This time last year I was in the midst of my introduction to active non-violence - reading Walter Wink, releasing balloons outside of a prison, watching "A Force More Powerful", attending events with names like "Musical Resistance Concert"...and learning about my own violence.

When I'm immersed in social justice-y work (working on an organic farm and trying to get healthy produce available to people regardless of income, for example), its easy to group my world into good and bad people. Last year, the bad people were Cambodian government officials ordering political assassinations and forced evictions, and everyone involved in perpetuating social and environmental injustice in the garment industry. This year, it's the government-agribusiness alliance that ensures that the most accessible food in the US is unhealthy for both land and people and everyone involved in keeping farmworkers politically marginalized so that they remain a cheap, mobile source of labor.

When I started learning about non-violence, I expected it to focus on empowering the oppressed, letting the "good" win, punishing the bad guys. I recognized in the tactics for countering violence efforts to force the oppressors to recognize the humanity of the oppressed, for the men with crowbars to look the women guarding their homes in the eye and feel some sort of empathy.

What I was unprepared for was that this has to be reciprocal. That true non-violent conflict resolution required the oppressed and their allies look in the eyes of the company thugs and military police with their batons and recognize something shared humanity and feel some sort of empathy. That I would have to start dismantling my carefully constructed categories of "good people" and "bad people". That I had a lot of violence to deal with within myself.

I found two portions of Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory" particularly challenging. I wrote:
The first passage gives the thoughts of an on-the-run Catholic priest walking through the Mexican jungle while a man he knows will betray him rides his mule beside him:
“But at the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery – that we were made in God’s image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out, and God’s image shook now, up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God’s image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said ‘Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?’ and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God’s image.”

God was the pastor, but he was also the pastor’s son, imprisoned for trying to stealing a necklace from a woman on a moto, and the guard at the prison, asking bribes for every movement, every scrap of food. God was the journalist and his son leaving the gym on Friday evening, and something resembling God drove by and shot them both – 5 bullets taking two lives.

I choke on those words. In this country where the injustice present in every society is done so openly, it’s so easy to know who to hate. I can feel that in myself as I sit on my bicycle in traffic behind yet another Lexus SUV with an RCAF (Royal Cambodian Armed Forces) license plate shuttling its well-fed occupants around as they plunder their own people. I can feel it in my body even as I type these words.

Greene’s priest continues to reflect on the power of all human beings being made in God’s image with the following words:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality of God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

My world is once again littered with failures of imagination, with big categories I put people in and label "enemy", categories that I use as excuses to ignore "the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth...". I have a long way to go. There's a lot of my world that needs to be complicated by the gray - the honest acknowledgment of the tensions of my own life and choices, and willingness to see those same tensions in the lives of the people I disagree with.

But at the center of my own faith has always stood the convincing mystery - that we were made in God's image.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Thesis statements rarely come to me while I'm sedentary. I'll admit that, in a near complete reversal of the correct order, I usually write my papers and then figure out what I've argued and stick in a thesis sentence just before I hit "print", but the few times I have done it the right way, the sentence that ties the whole thing together has come not while seated in front of a computer or with pen and paper in hand, but while I was on a run or walking to class or at some other inopportune moment.

So, naturally, one of the basic ideas that unifies the last year of my life came while I was pedaling around Phnom Penh one day in August. I remember repeating it over and over under my breath so I wouldn't lose it as I sweated my way to my favorite cafe:

Know where your stuff comes from, and know where it goes when you're done with it.

Things were starting to make sense to me last August. I wrote:
Most Westerners do not perceive affluence as a problem because we have successfully mentally dissociated it from the oppression and injustice it causes and perpetuates. What we need first is to start to see these relationships. Living in my neighborhood on HNGR has been an exercise in that regard. Many of the linkages and relationships that are obscured by distance in the West are in plain view in my community. The woman who sews the underwear I buy in the US lives in my house. My trash goes in a bag that is tied up and thrown across the street into the pond in the middle of the community, and as the flood season progresses, we’ll all be walking in that water. I think really knowing where we are ought to be a fundamental Christian discipline – knowing where our tomatoes come from and where what put in the trash can ends up, knowing the local growing seasons and where our shower water goes. What we learn, and perhaps more significantly what our affluent insulation makes it impossible for us to find out, should raise questions about our lifestyles.

Distilled: Know where your stuff comes from, and know where it goes when you're done with it.

I was reminded of that little mantra this morning while in a Sunday school of sorts - a multi-generational congregational discussion of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" over a feast of local origins. An older farmer from the area talked about how the book had inspired him to start asking where his food came from - approaching managers in butcheries or grocery stores to inquire about the origins of their products, getting answers like "Peru", "somewhere in the U.S." and most commonly: "I don't know".

There have been a lot of moments in the past month that have captured what we're doing here. One of them was a recent farm staff meeting over brunch, where we went around the table describing where the food we were eating came from - friends' gardens, farmers markets, our own land...

There was also a lot of Trader Joe's in there. We've made no Barbara Kingsolver-style goal of perfection, but its a start.

Know where your stuff comes from, and know where it goes when you're done with it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

go look at the other blog.

Once again, I'm re-directing to the ATFP blog, for which I am a regular Wednesday contributor. This particular installment involves fighter jets, chemical warfare, and shotguns...all things I don't usually discuss in much detail, so it's worth a look.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

itchy feet. home for Christmas

On December 3rd, 2008 I returned from my last international adventure weak enough to be met with a wheelchair at the door of the plane. Though I highly recommend this as the speediest way of negotiating customs, I was not in the best shape. Still, even after the rather unpleasant and abrupt end to my time in Cambodia, as the plane touched down at O'Hare my first thought was, "Oh no. I don't know when my next plane ticket out of the U.S. is!" For the first time I could remember, there wasn't the assurance of some sort of trans-continental trip in my future.

I lasted almost 10 months like that.

At 22, my carbon footprint is probably big enough from all my air travel that I could use no other form of transportation than a bicycle for the rest of my life and it would still take several planets to sustain Earth's population if everyone lived like me. But for the moment, I am unrepentantly excited to have just spent more than I can probably afford on a plane ticket home for Christmas.