Environmentalists Name 5 Foods to Avoid

Avital Andrews in Sierra, the bi-monthly magazine published by the Sierra Club, in Five Foods That Are Killing the Planet (January/February 2014 issue), cites the well-reasoned opinions of nearly a dozen prominent environmentalists in concluding that  (1) blue fish tuna, (2) conventional coffee, (3) cheap burgers made with factory-farmed beef, (4) genetically modified corn, and (5) palm oil should not be consumed by consumers mindful of our planet’s well-being.  Green and healthy alternatives to these five foods are readily available, and Andrews’ advocacy in her Enjoy The Green Life column in Sierra, to avoid these five foods, deserves to be widely publicized.

Carl Safina, the founder of the Blue Ocean Institute, notes the depletion of bluefin tuna because they’re long-lived and “don’t stand up well to heavy fishing pressure.”  With stock down by more than 96 percent from unfished levels, according to the Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, “If we don’t stop eating them now, we’ll stop in a few years anyway because there won’t be any more.”   In the Pacific Northwest, Gene Maltzeff and Lee Guilford, founders of Northwest Natural Foods, who are protective of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, market wild Alaskan salmon and halibut from those rich seas. Fisherwoman and environmental activist Sarah Schumann, the founder of Eating with the Ecosystem, offers an alternative approach to sustainable New England seafood focused on “a place-based conception of sustainability.”

Coffee is a shade-loving plant according to Widener University’s Stephen Madigosky, an environmental science professor.  The problem with conventional coffee stems from “manipulating” coffee plants to grow in full sunlight, which “requires substantial use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers” according to the professor.  Further, tropical species, especially migratory birds, are devastated when “biologically rich forests are cleared in favor of coffee crops.”  This website provides a directory of coffee companies, committed to producing coffee which is fair-traded and grown in environmentally sustainable ways.  My delicious morning cup of coffee is made with organic, fair trade, micro-roasted, single origin, shade grown beans from Osmar Perez’s small farm , “El Caraiman”, in Honduras’s coffee region, roasted and marketed by Tierra Farm (Valatie, NY).  The pound of coffee cost $12.20, quite reasonable given the environmental costs of conventional coffee.

To produce cheap burgers, fields of genetically modified corn and soy (laced with pesticides polluting local waters) are replacing tropical forests in order to grow feed for cows.  According to Logan Strenchock, the sustainability officer for Central European University, “It takes 10 to 14 pounds of grain-based feed for a cow to gain 1 pound of flesh,”  with massive amounts of energy subsequently needed to refrigerate the “harvested flesh.”  Grass fed beef is an alternative with the additional benefit of its superiority nutritionally.  A thorough review by agricultural experts of the scientific research spanning three decades, which focused upon the differences in nutritional quality between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle, confirmed that grass-fed beef is by far superior nutritionally to grain-fed beef.  Nonetheless, the source of the grass fed beef should also be considered.  Journalist Avital Andrews in her Sierra article quotes Mary O’Brien, the director of the Grand Canyon Trust’s Utah Forests Program:  “In the western U.S., cattle have the single most pervasive impact on public lands, depleting native biodiversity, increasing invasive exotics, diverting water, fouling streams, and baring the soil.”  To satisfy his occasional craving for a hamburger, this writer seeks out local grass fed beef raised by Sweet Tree Farm in Carlisle (Schoharie County), NY sold at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in his hometown of Albany.  Sweet Tree Farm beef is also sold at nearby farmers markets, Troy Waterfront Farmers Market across the river from Albany in Troy and at the Greenmarket in Schenectady.  A link to Eatwild’s directory of more than 1300 pasture based farms (producing products including chicken, turkey, beef, pork and lamb) is included on this website.

In addition to naming cheap burgers, made from factory farmed beef (fed genetically modified corn and soy), as one of the five foods killing the planet, the Sierra article separately names genetically modified corn as one of the five foods to be avoided.  According to Douglas Fox, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Maine’s Unity College, genetically modified corn destroys habitats, depletes soils, breaks nutrient cycles, pollutes air and water, contaminates native maize varieties, “and on and on.”  The professor’s condemnation echoes the passionate plea for organic agriculture expressed by Maria Rodale in her Organic Manifesto.  Terry Walters, the author of Clean Food (Sterling Epicure, 2012) notes that genetically modified corn, which is planted as a mono crop, has put our bee population at risk and is creating superpests.  The vast fields of genetically modified corn have eliminated food sources for bees.  According to Save-Bees.org (which is seeking an immediate moratorium on the use of the toxic class of pesticides, neonicotinoids), “bees pollinated 71 of the 100 crops that make up 90% of the world’s food supply.”  Michael Wines recently reported in The New York Times that dwindling habitat is also threatening the butterfly.   Journalist Wines references a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which noted that over the five years from 2006 to 2011 grasslands in Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska have been converted to corn and soybean fields at a rate “comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.”

The destruction of eight million acres of rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia to plant new palms for palm oil has resulted in deforestation-related carbon emissions which “surpass the amount of pollution caused by all U.S. cars, trucks, planes and ships” according to Christy Wilhelmi, author of Gardening for Geeks (Adams Media, 2013).  The Rainforest Action Network  [RAN] has noted that U.S. palm oil use has ballooned by 500 percent over the past 10 years and it’s now in about half of all packaged foods.  With the possibility that orangutans could become extinct within our lifetime (if their rainforest homes continue to be destroyed for palm oil plantations), the RAN has mounted a campaign to save rainforest habitat for “these gentle and intelligent animals, among humankind’s closest kin.”  An alternative to palm oil  is organic sunflower oil, such as Spectrum’s organic, high heat sunflower oil, an excellent vegetable oil to use for bread and other baked goods recipes as well as for roasting root vegetables such as butternut squash, adding a light, nutty flavor.

(Frank W. Barrie, 1/15/14)


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