Earth Hour, the environment, and the food you eat

I have to confess that Earth Hour this year was just as disappointing as last year, despite all the media attention. We went for dinner at a friend’s place and at 8:30 when we turned off our lights, it seemed like we were the only ones around doing so. But there are better things you can do with your time that will have a far greater effect on the environment as well as the quality of your life than eating by candlelight. Far more important is what you choose to eat. In a recent article on the NYT, Mark Bittman summarized well this position:

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.)

From these changes, Americans would reduce the amount of land, water and chemicals used to produce the food we eat, as well as the incidence of lifestyle diseases linked to unhealthy diets, and greenhouse gases from industrial meat production. All without legislation.

And the food would not necessarily have to be organic, which, under the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition, means it is generally free of synthetic substances; contains no antibiotics and hormones; has not been irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge; was raised without the use of most conventional pesticides; and contains no genetically modified ingredients.

Simply put – eat more plants and less animal products and artificial food (“food-like substances” are all those products that a person living 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize as food). When we talk about the need of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first thing we all think of is the pollution generated by cars and airplanes. But a recent study has shown that producing 1 kg of beef releases the same amount of CO2 than driving for 3 hours or leaving the lights on for twenty days. And that’s without including emissions of farm equipment or transporting the cattle and meat.

I personally believe that there is no need for everybody to become vegetarian and abdicate from meat and animal products altogether. All we need to do is restore meat to its proper place on our diet – that of the special treat, the garnish, rather than the centre-piece of every. single. meal.  By eating meat less often, you’ll also be able to afford better meat, the meat that is grass-fed, raised humanely, and not pumped with hormones. That way you’d help both the environment and your own health in the process.

Reducing your consumption of meat by at least half will make a much stronger statement than turning off the lights for an hour.

Interview with David Suzuki

Living in Canada, one cannot ignore David Suzuki. I had never heard of him before coming to Canada but in the past few years, as I became more environmentally-conscious, I have come to admire greatly the man and his work. Suzuki has recently made it to the list of top ten greatest Canadians and I’m currently engrossed in his autobiography. His passion and his commitment are very inspiring and Alan and I have really enjoyed watching the Suzuki Diaries, a recent documentary in which Suzuki and his daughter travel through Europe to look for environmental solutions. The documentary can be watched online. When it comes to the environment, many people get confused about what they can do to make an impact. Not everybody can become an activist or has the time to do in-depth research on the issue.  Working together with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the David Suzuki Foundation came up with a list of the ten most effective things we can do as individuals to protect our environment. Calling it the Nature Challenge, the David Suzuki Foundation asks each of us to commit to implement at least three (3) of the following ten steps in the coming year:

  1. Reduce home energy use by 10 percent
  2. Choose energy-efficient home and appliances
  3. Don’t use pesticides
  4. Eat meat-free meals one day a week
  5. Buy locally grown and produced food
  6. Choose a fuel-efficient vehicle
  7. Walk, bike, carpool or take public transit one day a week
  8. Choose a home close to work or school
  9. Support alternative transportation
  10. Learn more and share information with others

Since I live a 15- min walk from where I work/study, numbers 6-9 are not at all a problem. The choice of where we live is important. In Montreal, we lived in the suburbs and were highly dependent on our car to get around. I’ve always disliked our dependence on the automobile and even in the suburbs would try to encourage Alan to walk to the grocery store or take the bus. This dislike was not necessarily related to environmental concern – I simply don’t like driving in a car – but when it came time to move to Toronto I asked that we find a place at walking-distance to the university. This choice has paid us back manifold in the past five years. Yes, living downtown may represent a slightly higher cost in term of rent but the amount of money we have saved in transportation cost and quality of life has repaid that many times over. We gave up our car after a year in Toronto and even Alan, a man who got a driver’s license while still a teenager and has had his own car since he was 18 and who would never have thought possible to live without one, now campaigns for alternative transportation and tells everyone who would listen how much easier his life is without a car. But of course not everyone can make that choice since many places in North America cannot be reached without a car and not every major urban centre in this side of the world has an efficient public transit system. But in that case, there’s still much that can be done about using cars responsibly and choosing fuel-efficient vehicles. During the past year, I’ve focused on numbers 4 and 5. It really wasn’t hard. At least one-third of our meals are now meat-free, probably closer to half. We support local business and shop for locally-grown produce at the market and small stores around our home. We feel healthier than ever before. We have become more aware of our energy consumption – this is the area we can most improve upon since we are both technology geeks and have our computers on 24/7. One of the resolutions for the new year is to focus more on number 10. One of Alan’s good friends is thinking of getting rid of her car and take transit more after hearing him talk about it so often. It’s a small victory but who said you can’t change the world one person at a time? And here’s an interview with David Suzuki done by  WWF-Australia.

Sustainable seafood

I love fish. One of the things I enjoyed most when I lived in Barcelona was the great seafood everywhere. I always chose the fish dish – whatever it was – whenever I had menu del dia and was never disapointed. It was invariably fresh and tasty. I also learned to love a nice grilled calamari, arroz negre, and other seafood that previously I didn’t really eat. But I confess I don’t usually buy fish to cook at home. Initially, it was mostly because I didn’t have a good source of safe fish. I had heard lots about the alarming levels of toxic chemicals in many fish in the market and until I could figure out which ones were safe, I avoided buying any. The only fish I bought was salmon sold at Cumbrae’s because of the company’s commitment to sustainable, organic products.

While my concern in buying fish was mostly based on fear for its quality, it looks like what should be on our minds really is the quantity of fish available and our consumption of it. After reading this article at Chocolate & Zucchini about what Clotilde, its author, calls the “sustainable food dilemma”, I became more aware of the issue of the depletion of our oceans and rivers. I encourage you to read both the article and the discussion that ensued afterwards. The issue had been on my mind recently after a conversation with an English scholar in Spain who told me how Spanish fishermen are notorious in the fishing business for aggressively overfishing and moving into other countries’ water as they run out of fish in their own waters. Apparently most of the fish I enjoyed so much in Spain come from English waters, which are quickly becoming depleted.

But what can we do? Clotilde advises us to get a pocket seafood guide – I’ve seen those around grocery stores here in Toronto, you can download it here – which tells us which fish are safe both in terms of levels of contaminants and sustainability (which are being overfished, etc). We should also ask questions at our restaurants and fishmongers – something I’m not very good at – and show concern. Perhaps if enough people seem interested in getting only susteinable seafood, the market will change. With that in mind, spreading the word is paramount. You’ll find links to more indepth articles about the issue at the blog I cited above.

Earth Day

Cablegirl at 42 has reminded me that today is Earth Day, a good opportunity for you to think about ways in which you help preserving the environment in which you live. I posted about some of the things I do in the past, but will re-post them here today to mark the occasion:

We can each do our part in ensuring a future for our children and for ourselves:

1. Recycle & re-use items – don’t throw in the garbage something that can be recycled. Re-use what you can. Why spend money on toxic plastic containers to store food when you can use nice glass jars and containers from your jams, mayonese, salsa, olives and other products. I used to love the fact that you had the option to get juice & milk on glass bottles in Spain.

2. Try to generate less garbage – It seems that the cleaning products industry has gone on the “disposable” bandwagon recently. From your duster, to wood-polishing oils, passing through multi-purpose cleaners, everything comes in disposable wipes format. The trend has also started to impact the cosmetic industry where I have been seeing disposable facial washing cloth. Has anybody stopped to think the amount of extra garbage that generates? What’s wrong with wiping the kitchen counters with a cloth that can be washed afterwards?

3. Try to leave your car at home more often – I know this is hard for people living in North American suburbs that have been designed for cars and where a public transit system is almost non-existent. But do you really need to drive to the corner store, less than 10-minute walk away? Luckily for me, my dad was a bit cheap when it came to driving my brothers and I around. He complained gas was expensive and would only drive us to places we couldn’t possibly walk to or take a bus. Even when I had to go grocery shopping, since the store was about a kilometre away, he would tell me “you can walk”. Of course it used to drive me nuts, but today I appreciate it since my first instinct when I have to go anywhere is to walk, and if I can’t walk, to look for public transit.

4. Buy local whenever possible – That’s one of the things I’ve started being more aware of lately. Personally, I think this one affects not only the environment but also your health. Whenever I go shopping, I make sure I check the tags of what I buy. I’d rather buy strawberries from Ontario than from California, regardless of the price.

and an extra one, particularly relevant in the summer:

5. Watch your water consumption – Both Brazil and Canada have a lot of water and it was only after living in Spain, a country where lack of water is a continuous problem, that the problem became all that much clearer to me. Whether you live in a place where water is abundant or not, I think it serves no purpose to waste it.

Other blogs participating on Earth Day (each with informative posts)

English:

42

Portuguese:

Always por um Triz

In Other Worlds

Sindrome de Estocolmo

Will add more blogs as I come across them…

Blog Action Day: the Environment

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

When I was growing up in Brazil, environmentalists were perceived as hippies that stood on the way of progress and defended an utopian view of the world. It was a time in which Prince Charles was ridiculed for his defense of the environment and organic farming, and Brazilian authorities wished Sting would fight for someone else’s forests. Fast forward a couple of decades and we now live in a world where these questions are no longer limited to the Green Parties and hippies of the world. Mainstream political parties must now have a proper environment policy and a former American vice-president has won the Nobel Peace Prize for calling the western world’s attention to the critical point we have reached. Suddenly, Prince Charles is not so laughable after all…

We can each do our part in ensuring a future for our children and for ourselves:

1. Recycle & re-use items – don’t throw in the garbage something that can be recycled. Re-use what you can. Why spend money on toxic plastic containers to store food when you can use nice glass jars and containers from your jams, mayonese, salsa, olives and other products. I used to love the  fact that you had the option to get juice & milk on glass bottles in Spain.

2. Try to generate less garbage – It seems that the cleaning products industry has gone on the “disposable” bandwagon recently. From your duster, to wood-polishing oils, passing through multi-purpose cleaners, everything comes in disposable wipes format. The trend has also started to impact the cosmetic industry where I have been seeing disposable facial washing cloth. Has anybody stopped to think the amount of extra garbage that generates? What’s wrong with wiping the kitchen counters with a cloth that can be washed afterwards?

3. Try to leave your car at home more often – I know this is hard for people living in North American suburbs that have been designed for cars and where a public transit system is almost non-existent. But do you really need to drive to the corner store, less than 10-minute walk away? Luckily for me, my dad was a bit cheap when it came to driving my brothers and I around. He complained gas was expensive and would only drive us to places we couldn’t possibly walk to or take a bus. Even when I had to go grocery shopping, since the store was about a kilometre away, he would tell me “you can walk”. Of course it used to drive me nuts, but today I appreciate it since my first instinct when I have to go anywhere is to walk, and if I can’t walk, to look for public transit.

4. Buy local whenever possible – That’s one of the things I’ve started being more aware of lately. Personally, I think this one affects not only the environment but also your health. Whenever I go shopping, I make sure I check the tags of what I buy. I’d rather buy strawberries from Ontario than from California, regardless of the price.

Spread the word! Think of your own contributions to the world in which we all live. Be aware of the example you set for your children.

More good advice here and here.