So, you have decided to cook dinner at home tonight. You go to the store and you buy some pork chops, some greens, some potatoes and all the assorted fixins that go with your meal. You head home and you dice your potatoes, coat them with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper, and then throw them in the oven, which is heated to 400 degrees. Next, you season your pork chops with Dijon mustard, black pepper and coriander and let them sit for a moment. You then wash and cut your greens and set them aside. You turn your attention to the skillet that you have been preheating on the stove, it looks hot. Now you take your marinated chops and you place them into the hot skillet, searing them on each side and then lowering the heat to cook them through. As the chops near completion you place your washed greens on the plate and top them with gruyere cheese and walnuts; you finish them with a light balsamic vinaigrette. Turning back towards the stove you remove the chops from the skillet and plate them. Finally, you open your oven and pull out your casserole dish of potatoes and situate them between the chops and the greens. Voila, dinner is served.
This process, when explained in detail, seems like quite the accomplishment, but even more astonishing than the shopping and preparation is the entire interconnected web of events that have come together to make your dinner possible.
Take that little pile of greens for example; where did they come from? Let’s say that you live in Oklahoma (like me) and the greens came from Napa Valley, California. That means that those greens, which let’s assume are not organic, were shipped more than 1,700 miles to get to your plate.
Consider the amount of energy that was required to transport your salad to your plate. Seventeen hundred miles at roughly ten miles per gallon equals 170 gallons of diesel fuel to make that meal happen. If diesel fuel is $2.50 per gallon, that is about $425 dollars in transport costs, not counting maintenance.
That is a LOT of fuel to get those greens to your plate… but let’s talk about the Green Revolution. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, please read this article. In short: During the mid to late 1960s, agriculture was transformed by the introduction of genetically altered strains of crops, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The resulting yields were much higher when compared to pre-green revolution agriculture yields. So what is the problem with higher yields? The issue is that it is extremely inefficient, meaning that it uses huge amounts of oil, manpower and electricity to produce negligible increases in total output. Also, the practice is generally not considered to be congruent with proper land stewardship techniques.
I’m throwing this ‘land stewardship’ term around without really explaining it. Really, it is the application of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) versus “bad agricultural practices” such as excessive use of fertilizers/pesticides and insufficient crop rotation. Do you know if your greens were GAP certified? If so, then you could say that you are eating a ‘sustainable salad’.
So we have discussed the growing practices, the shipping mechanisms, and in minimal detail, the harvesting process (just that it is mechanized). What about labor practices? Do you know whether the workers that harvested and packed your greens were paid properly or treated fairly? Check out this article to get some background on farm labor.
Moving on from your greens, let’s take a look at your pork chop. Have you ever considered the series of events that take place in order to get that pork chop to your plate? Chances are the pig that was slaughtered to make your pork chop was raised in factory farm conditions. Factory farming aims to introduce a control over natural process in order to increase production output. Because a life is involved in the process, many folks are opposed to the conditions that animals must endure in factory farming operations. The Encyclopedia Britannica Advocacy for Animals website is a great resource for those of you that would like more information about factory farming practices.
A problem with both industrial agriculture and factory farming is runoff from the massive operations. According to this article from the Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural nonpoint source pollution (runoff as opposed to a pipe spewing pollutants directly) is the leading source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of surveyed estuaries and groundwater. Learn more about runoff here.
Perhaps the most well known result of agricultural runoff is the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, which is caused by fertilizer runoff. Essentially, all the fertilizer and antibiotics and other stuff floating around in the water of the Mississippi River (which flows into the Gulf, of course) causes algae in the Gulf to “bloom,” which then uses up all the oxygen in the surrounding water. No oxygen means no life, hence the term dead zone. For more information about this, check out http://www.smm.org/deadzone/.
Speaking of water, agriculture and ranching both take massive amounts of water to sustain. Sometimes, huge agriculture operations can pull more water out of the ground than is refreshed naturally. This practice is known as groundwater mining, a name that implies that once the water is pulled out of the aquifer (basically porous rock that holds water like a sponge) it will not be replaced any time soon. The rate at which the aquifer can fill back up is known as its recharge rate, which for the most part operates on what I like to call a “geologic scale,” meaning that it basically takes … well, forever. Also, the water that you washed your greens in had to be treated at a water treatment plant.
So far, we have covered the greens from the Napa Valley that traveled to your plate (maybe in Oklahoma), the pork that was likely raised on a factory farm somewhere in the United States (maybe Iowa), and the ethical and environmental implications of both of these. We have also discussed the conditions under which the farm workers must labor. What’s left on your plate? Oh yes, the potatoes that were cooked with the olive oil and seasoned with the sea salt and black pepper.
The olive oil was most likely produced near the Mediterranean Sea, making its trip to the United States a very long one. The fuel costs alone must have been astronomical, but of course the olive oil didn’t make the trip alone. Sea salt is made from the evaporation of salt water, meaning that it generally is produced in coastal lagoons. It could have come from France, or Senegal, or elsewhere, and it likely made a long trip as well.
Beyond the ingredients used in your dinner, you also used some natural resources. Most obviously, if you have a gas stove, you used natural gas to roast your potatoes and sauté your pork chops. In the past, natural gas was viewed as a nuisance or a waste product of the oil industry and was routinely “flared off” (burned as it was pulled out of the ground). However, as technology marches on, more efficient ways of refining and transporting natural gas have become viable, allowing for the overseas shipment of large amounts of the stuff.
So where does all of our natural gas come from? Well, the largest natural gas field in the world is in Qatar, which is in the Arabian Gulf … or the Persian Gulf, depending on who you ask (it’s the same place, but different folks call it different things).
Now that you’ve reflected on the amount of time, effort and resources required to make your dinner, consider the next step—your body’s processing of the calories and chemicals you’re about to consume. Is this food really good for you? Buying organic food or meats that are “free-range” not only give you better insight into the growing and harvesting practices of what’s on you’re plate, they’re often more nutritious for you as well, solving the problem on both ends.
Your challenge this Friday the 13th is to consider the past 12 steps and reflect on your own ethics of food growth and consumption. A great way to ensure that your food is grown to your standards and ethics is to grow or raise it yourself, but there are also plenty of healthy and environmentally friendly food options out there. You can also keep informed of food movements like Slow Food, which promotes both healthy growth and consumption of food.