ECOPINON: Is There a "Right Way" to Buy Food?


By Andi Ostenso I stroll into Whole Foods. The first thing I see is an elaborate tower of apples in every color. I take a closer look: local Michigan apples, apples from France, green, pink, red, organic, conventional, Ambrosia, Braeburn, Golden Delicious…. whoa.


So many questions run through my mind. How is it that I have this many options when it’s not even apple season? Should I go for the premium organic local Honey Crisp at $4 a pop, or should I opt for the affordable, conventional Galas? How are all of these apples the perfect shape and size? How many miles did this apple travel to get to me?



Every time we buy food, there are thousands of choices to make, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and simply grab the first thing you see. The barrage of “good food” labels don’t make it any easier: Fair trade, conventional, local, all natural, organic, humane, non-GMO. These are all just buzzwords until you discover what they mean, and what matters to you.


However, every single food you consume has social and environmental impacts depending on where, by whom, and how the food is produced.


In the U.S., we are incredibly disconnected from the impacts of our consumption. Food is delivered to us perfectly packaged, portioned, shaped, and colored. We could eat peanut butter every morning without knowing what a peanut plant looks like. We can go to the grocery store and purchase a single, oversized chicken breast with no conception of the labor and toil encompassed by our purchase.


On the other hand, so much of our food choices are rooted in factors like our cultures, our regions and our economic status. Who is to say which of these guidelines is the “right way” to purchase food?


I’m not going to tell you the way to live your life. Rather, I’ll explain a few of my values. Then I encourage you to do more digging and think about what your values are, so you can be a consumer who uses their dollars to vote for the world they want to see.


I think the world needs more small-scale farmers

The size of farms in the U.S. has been growing, whereas the number of farms has been declining, as shown in the figure below. This means less than 2 percent of people are responsible for providing nutritious and safe food for the rest of the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. To me, it seems totally unreasonable to expect this system to work.

Growing food can be satisfying work. Picture owning your own land, getting to choose what you want to grow, and seeing people enjoying and thriving from the fruits of your labor. Unfortunately, this is not the case when workers are exploited by the industrial food system, doing repetitive work, making little pay, and being exposed to harmful pesticides. I believe for a sustainable food system there needs to be more small farms. On a smaller-scale, farmers are empowered to be stewards of the land, diversifying their crops, and adapting to environmental needs. To support this value, I choose to shop at farmers markets to connect with the people growing the food that I eat.


Food ethics graph 1




Organic is the way to go

Despite the constant debate, I am confident that organic food is worth the extra cost for you, for growers, and for the environment. The price tag for conventional food is insufficient, failing to account for many of the external impacts of agriculture. The extra cost for organic food ensures less hazardous exposure for workers, less pollutants released into the environment, and less pathogenic compounds entering your body. Out of the 83 nations tracked by the USDA, Americans.spend the smallest portion of our income on food, at an average of 6.4 percent of income in 2012. This decreased food cost comes back to us, however, through medical bills and environmental degradation. National healthcare costs due to obesity per year range from $147 to $210 billion, which can be directly linked to cheap, overly processed, subsidized foods. Environmental costs can be seen in the dead zones in fisheries from fertilizer runoff, the cleanup needed for surface and groundwater that has been polluted from confined animal feeding operation waste, and the increased health risks to agricultural workers, farmers, and rural communities exposed to pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Taking these costs into consideration, I feel we can afford to make budget cuts in other parts of our daily life and spend a bit more for our health and the health of future generations.


I know humans can thrive on a plant-based diet and that plant-based diets are better

I have been vegan for almost 4 years now, vegetarian for 7 years, and I am an athlete on the Northwestern Cross Country team. I made this decision for environmental and animal rights reasons. However, I stuck with it because while eating a plant-based diet I have felt better than ever, and I have performed my best on the cross-country course and on the track—it turns out the human body is designed to thrive on plants, as shown by the table below.

Vegan table


Eating a combination of fruits, vegetables, and grains provides plentiful nutrients and is incredibly tasty. Once you learn plant based cooking, it is fun, easy, and inexpensive. Some of my favorite recipes are avocado & sweet potato sushi, burrito bowls, banana ice cream… the list goes on and on! Two of my favorite places to get recipes are on the food blogs, Minimalist Baker, and Healthy Happy Life.


A plant-based diet is also better for the environment. Raising livestock requires a massive amount of food, energy and land as compared to crop growth, and generates a huge amount of waste. By the numbers, the diet of meat eaters creates seven times the greenhouse emissions as the diet of vegans, requires thirteen times more water, and prompts the bulldozing of seven football fields of land every minute to create more room for livestock farming.


Producers will produce what consumers want to consume. I believe we need to demand a better food system. My challenge for you is to take a step back and see whether your purchases align with your values. Every purchase you make matters, because a human being was involved with planting, watering, picking, and packaging each thing you consume, and everything we grow has an impact on our planet.

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