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...
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.
"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.