J500 Media and the Environment

Chew on this! by rarab

As synchronicity would have it, I’ve stumbled upon a number of recent articles that tie in perfectly with our current discussion about food consumption and environmental awareness. I realize that the last thing my fellow classmates need is another reading assignment, but I think these stories are particularly enlightening–and in most cases highly entertaining, so I hope you’ll at least give them a quick scan. Still, to make sure this doesn’t cut into your ability to watch the Rock of Love 2 “Mud Bowl” in its entirety, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the passages that I think best address the issues we’ve been discussing–and I’ve bolded the key points to help showcase the main arguments. So here goes…Yesterday, when I got home, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my latest issue of The New Yorker magazine featured a major story on the attempts of some companies within the British food industry to create labeling listing a particular food item’s carbon footprint:

[Terry Leahy, CEO of British supermarket chain Tesco] announced that Tesco would cut its energy use in half by 2010, drastically limit the number of products it transports by air, and place airplane symbols on the packaging of those which it does. More important, in an effort to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the choices they make every day, he told the forum that Tesco would develop a system of carbon labels and put them on each of its seventy thousand products. “Customers want us to develop ways to take complicated carbon calculations and present them simply,” he said. “We will therefore begin the search for a universally accepted and commonly understood measure of the carbon footprint of every product we sell—looking at its complete life cycle, from production through distribution to consumption. It will enable us to label all our products so that customers can compare their carbon footprint as easily as they can currently compare their price or their nutritional profile.”

Leahy’s sincerity was evident, but so was his need to placate his customers. Studies have consistently demonstrated that, given a choice, people prefer to buy products that are environmentally benign. That choice, however, is almost never easy. “A carbon label will put the power in the hands of consumers to choose how they want to be green,” Tom Delay, the head of the British government’s Carbon Trust, said. “It will empower us all to make informed choices and in turn drive a market for low-carbon products.” Tesco was not alone in telling people what it would do to address the collective burden of our greenhouse-gas emissions. Compelled by economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness, many corporations now seem to compete as vigorously to display their environmental credentials as they do to sell their products.

However, as the article goes on to say, developing that universally accepted standard of carbon labeling is no easy task:

In order to develop the label for Walkers [British potato chips], researchers had to calculate the amount of energy required to plant seeds for the ingredients (sunflower oil and potatoes), as well as to make the fertilizers and pesticides used on those potatoes. Next, they factored in the energy required for diesel tractors to collect the potatoes, then the effects of chopping, cleaning, storing, and bagging them. The packaging and printing processes also emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as does the petroleum used to deliver those crisps to stores. Finally, the research team assessed the impact of throwing the empty bags in the trash, collecting the garbage in a truck, driving to a landfill, and burying them. In the end, the researchers—from the Carbon Trust—found that seventy-five grams of greenhouse gases are expended in the production of every individual-size bag of potato chips.

“Crisps are easy,” Murlis had told me. “They have only one important ingredient, and the potatoes are often harvested near the factory.” We were sitting in a deserted hotel lounge in Central London, and Murlis stirred his tea slowly, then frowned. “Let’s just assume every mother cares about the environment—what then?” he asked. “Should the carbon content matter more to her than the fat content or the calories in the products she buys?”

But, of course, every story on the environment MUST include the counterpoint argument, and this story is no exception:

“It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” [Adrian] Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.” Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. “This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,’’ he said. “There is no one number that works.”

Fair enough. The article goes on to say much more, and I highly recommend reading it, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Meanwhile, I also wanted to share an excerpt from this wonderful interview with Food Guru Michael Pollan:

OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the “shock doctrine” of the food industry. There’s this notion that what’s bad for us is good for the industry.

MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It’s very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They’re too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.

But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it’s very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That’s a big bag of oats. But there’s little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there’s a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don’t have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that’s a good business.

But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it’s a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.

OR: You have a way of making that sound really unappealing.

MP: They really are. Look at the ingredients on the label — it will say “made with real milk.” Check out what the real milk is. It’s ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you’re selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you’ve taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you’re up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you’ve added all of this excitement and novelty.

And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you’re increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you’re only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don’t know about because nutrition science doesn’t see them yet.

So that’s the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don’t eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we’re too busy to cook. And they’re very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it’s this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.

Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there’s simply no time to cook. I think we’ve been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.

Finally, I’d like to share this article from the Feb. 13th New York Times (“I Love You, But You Eat Meat”). The story is about couples with different eating habits (vegans living with meat-eaters, vegetarians and those who observe kosher practices, etc.) It was meant as a cute Valentine’s Day piece about opposites attracting, I suppose, but it also had some themes that resonated with our current discussion about diets–and tolerance. Here’s what I thought was the best passage:

Food has a strong subconscious link to love, said Kathryn Zerbe, a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. That is why refusing a partner’s food “can feel like rejection,” she said.

As with other differences couples face, tolerance and compromise are essential at the dinner table, marital therapists said. “If you can’t allow your partner to have latitude in what he or she eats, then maybe your problem isn’t about food,” said Susan Jaffe, a psychiatrist in Manhattan.

Dynise Balcavage, 42, an associate creative director at an advertising agency and vegan who lives in Philadelphia, said she has been happily married to her omnivorous husband, John Gatti, 53, for seven years.

“We have this little dance we’ve choreographed in the kitchen,” she said. She prepares vegan meals and averts her eyes when he adds anchovies or cheese. And she does not show disapproval when he orders meat in a restaurant.

“I’m not a vegangelical,” she said. “He’s an adult and I respect his choices just as he respects mine.”

Okay, so that’s all the food for thought (sorry) I’m dishing out for now. Sorry for the long post (I think I just slightly went over 250 words), but I hope it inspires discussion–or at the very least, I hope it makes you think twice about the food you consume.



Caption: An excessive carbon footprint has become the equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter. Photograph by Horacio Salinas.