Nutrition and Sustainability

With a rapidly rising world population, dwindling resources, deforestation, industrialisation and pollution our food choices are becoming more and more important. As per the butterfly effect, our food choices are linked with all of these negative events happening on the planet. While we cannot single-handedly stop deforestation or pollution we must remember that “change begins at home” and with a few simple food choices we may be able to make a larger impact as awareness of the impact of our choices spreads.

I like to think in terms of the idea “sustainable nutrition” – ie. eating in a way that promotes the sustainability of the earth, its resources, ourselves and all other species. The most important factors to bear in mind in terms of “sustainable nutrition” are the following:

  1. Environmental impact
  2. Economics
  3. Health, nutrition and taste
  4. Animal welfare
  5. Social dynamics

Environmental Impact

Our food choices affect the environment in a number of ways. Fossil fuels are used for the production and transportation of many foods. Petroleum is used in the production of many fertilisers and pesticides. Also much of our food travels many hundreds or thousands of kilometers to reach our doorstep – this uses up a lot of fuel and is not very environmentally friendly.
The easiest way to positively impact the environment in this case is to firstly buy food that is produced within as short a distance of your living area as possible. You may want to think twice before buying those special goji berries imported from China or maca root extract from the amazon jungle or whatever magical food from Timbuktu. By buying those products you are encouraging this unsustainable cycle. A better option would be to encourage local farmers to grow some of those exotic items, and also to realise that one can do without. Generally all you need to be healthy is good, local food that is available and produced in your area.

Organic and biodynamically grown foods are produced without the use of pesticides and herbicides and these farming principles tend to hold sustainability and perpetual renewal as important concepts. Not all farms can afford to become officially “certified organic” and yet nevertheless are growing their products according to organic or biodynamic principles. Ask around at your local farmers markets, health stores or do a google search for farms producing healthy organic foods, with or without certification.

We also need to look if natural ecosystems or forests were destroyed to farm the food that you are eating? Soybeans and their byproducts are used in a huge amount of food products where you wouldn’t expect it. More than 90% of chocolate bars in your average store contains soy. Soy is used as feed for industrially produced meat. Soy is used to make fake meat products. It sounds like an incredible food, with a variety of applications but unfortunately large tracts of natural habitat and forests are destroyed to harvest soy.

While being a vegetarian can be an important step to living sustainably, in some cases eating a locally produced food such as ethically produced karoo lamb or wild game would be a more environmentally sustainable option than opting for the soy veggie burger. A bit of deeper investigation and thought into your food choices will bring clarity about different foods and their environmental impact.

Economics

There are two factors to bear in mind in terms of the economics of sustainable eating. The first one being that the food we buy is an indirect form of voting, perpetuating a particular production cycle and the second factor being affordability. Whenever we buy any item, we are directly contributing to more of that item being produced, and generally speaking, the more popular an item is the cheaper it becomes. Here again buying locally produced food makes a lot of sense as it allows for the continued production of healthy, locally produced food.
If we all only bought from large stores such as Pick and Pay and Woolworths then the small guys would quickly go out of business. If the smaller shops were supported enough and there were enough of them then they would be able to reduce their prices in time to match the larger corporations. This would then also cause the bigger guys like Pick and Pay and Woolworths to over time change the items that they themselves stock, allowing for healthier, sustainable and natural products at large chains.
I myself do a lot of my shopping directly through small shops. I find it really great knowing exactly where my food comes from and also interacting with the people who are actually growing the plants and raising the animals. It feels empowering, and it is wonderful watching over the years as these small farmers and small shops grow in size and popularity, supported by their community.

Of course, all of this has to be tempered with your own economic situation and how much you can actually afford and spend on food. One can live healthfully and sustainably on a large or small budget if you know where and how to shop. If you are a meat eater then it makes sense to buy directly from small local farms, in conjunction with friends and family. If you buy say half a sheep or a whole chicken the price per kg comes down tremendously. Buying cheaper cuts of meat often tends to be more nutritious than the more expensive, sought after cuts anyway. Getting seafood directly from the harbour or from factory shops can be very affordable, for very fresh items.

For fresh produce one can buy in bulk from local fruit and vegetable markets, and directly from some farms. In Cape Town I sometimes make an early morning trip to the Epping fruit and vegetable market where I can get some real bargains. A 20kg box of bananas only costs R100 and I can share these with my friends or freeze the excess. Most cities also contain stores where one can buy legumes and grains in bulk. These store well and when they are bought and cooked in bulk, cost mere pennies.
A deep freezer is a valuable asset in terms of living cheaply as it allows one to get bulk discount rates for many types of perishable foods and allow for the long term storage of them. It can also save you time because you can batch cook a large meal and freeze it in portions.

Other factors to bear in mind in terms of economics are the health effects and resulting medical expenditure of the food one eats and also the nutrient content of the food itself. Buying organic and biodynamic can be more expensive than conventional produce but in some cases actually works out cheaper if you work out the cost per nutrient. Pasture-reared eggs are a lot more nutritious than the conventional ones, with higher levels of vitamin A and E. Living off of cheap junk-food keeps hunger at bay and doesn’t cost a lot, but the resulting problems that you can expect down the line may cost a fortune. If one eats and lives healthfully, doctors visits become rare, and one has more energy, so it is a small price to pay a bit more for higher quality food. You are what you eat!

Health, Nutrition and Taste

The food we eat plays a huge role in the way our body and mind functions. Nutrients found in food are the building blocks for our bones, organs, muscles and blood, so it’s important to eat the right stuff. The good news is that by living off of a locally produced, balanced diet one can get all the nutrients one needs for a healthy body and mind. My generation and the younger generations are used to convenience foods and eating everything out of a packet, and once one learns the truth about where one’s food comes from it can be a huge shock. I never learnt to cook as a teenager but when I finally started I found it highly beneficial to learn to cook tasty food from the high-quality ingredients I sourced. I found that learning to source affordable, high-quality ingredients and cook them made me a more well-rounded human being and has made a huge positive impact in my life on many levels .

It’s great fun sharing healthy, tasty food with the people you love. Being able to cook tasty food is important, because if it doesn’t taste good nobody will eat it! Luckily well-cooked, simple, tasty food can be extremely delicious. Spending a bit of time learning what a balanced diet consists of and what the different nutrients are good for, is very useful information that can serve one for a lifetime.

Animal Welfare

As peace loving people, in an ideal world, I believe we would eat without killing animals. I enjoy this quote from Albert Einstein.

Although I have been prevented by outward circumstances from observing a strictly vegetarian diet, I have long been an adherent to the cause in principle. Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.” Translation of letter to Hermann Huth, December 27, 1930. Einstein Archive 46-756

I believe this is something great to strive towards if one feels good and thrives on such a diet, but it is not necessarily the most sustainable option in all cases. One argument for vegetarianism is that if we fed the people of earth all the grain and legumes that we feed the livestock that we eat then we could feed an extra 4 billion people than we currently do. The problem with this statement is that it assumes that livestock need to be fed grains and legumes. This is simply a by-product of a broken system. Cattle and livestock are designed to eat grass and were never meant to eat grains or legumes in the quantities that they are fed by industrial feeding operations. In industrial society feeding cattle grains is a cheap way of fattening them up to supply the masses with meat. We are in this scenario because of consumers demanding a large amount of meat, farmers then taking shortcuts and consumers not asking about where their food comes or caring about the way it is produced.

An alternative scenario is for us as people to reduce our meat consumption and support farmers who grow cattle in the natural way, feeding them on pasture or grass, if there is space to do so (where natural habitat does not need to be destroyed). Another fact to bear in mind is that there are many parts of the world where crops can not be effectively grown (desert and rocky type areas) where grazing livestock provide milk and meat to the people of the area. In these places animal foods make a lot of sense.

Industrial farming operations do not see animals as living beings, but merely as products to be sold. These animals live very poor lives, in very poor and stressful conditions. This is a very cruel and inhumane situation. Compare this to the natural life cycle of traditional tribes such as the bushmen and native americans. This video is incredible watching and a demonstration of the respect for life of earlier people that is lacking in our society.
Our options are to become vegetarians, pescetarians, vegans or to support farmers that practice cruelty-free farming methods. If we decide to become vegan or vegetarian we need to make sure that we retain our health and support environmentally friendly crops. If we become pescetarians we need to put some thought into the types of seafood that we eat as our oceans are being depleted of many types of fish. If we choose to continue eating meat we need to get to know our farmers and how their animals are raised and slaughtered. Whichever choices we make, we need to think about the impacts of our decisions, tempered with the needs of our bodies.

Social Dynamics

Trying to balance all the factors above can be tricky and hard to achieve perfectly. It’s nice to attend dinner parties or go to restaurants with friends and family. Sometimes we have to compromise on our values. This is ok. We are living in a broken system and it will take time to fix it. The best solution is to just do the best you can every day. I try and source the highest quality ingredients I can for eating at home. When eating out I try and suggest restaurants that I know source good quality ingredients and that are aware of sustainability and how it relates to the food they serve. If I am invited to a dinner party I give up most of my rules and will eat what is offered to me. If it is appropriate I will bring up some of the issues that I have mentioned above in a non-offensive and non-judgemental way. Being righteous and judgemental is a good way to make enemies and won’t get people to change their thinking or habits anyway. A better approach is to drop a few interesting lines of conversation such as “You should really watch the “Food Inc” documentary when you have a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it” or “Did you know that 1000 acres of the Amazon forest were destroyed last month to make way for soybean plantations”. That way you are empowering people to think for themselves.

 

In conclusion I present a few simple things that we can all do to contribute to sustainability through our eating habits.

  1. Educate yourself about the nutritional benefits of different foods and promoting health through nutrition
  2. Learn to cook tasty meals for yourself and your family
  3. Educate yourself about where your food comes from and how it was produced
  4. Read ingredients labels on food and find out what the different ingredients are for and how they are produced (warning, you may be in for a shock)
  5. Buy locally produced, organic food as far as possible
  6. Spread interesting documentaries and media about food and food choices to the people around you