Using our brains—not just our stomachs—to engage in our eating

Emily Glass | Fulcrum Staff

“AREN’T YOU CURIOUS?”

It’s a question I get all the time when the topic of my dietary history comes up. Growing up in a completely vegetarian home is still fairly uncommon, but when I was in elementary school it was pretty much unheard of. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had to tell to people that, no, I am not curious about the taste of meat.

The next question I get is: “Why do you eat the way you do?” The fact that I have consistently had to defend my choices and repeatedly explain that I will probably never consider eating meat has made my relationship with food a close one. Aside from ensuring I get my fair share of vegetables every day, lifelong vegetarianism has meant that I have always approached food consumption questioning what is moral, sustainable, and even beneficial to our planet and humanity.

Having this unique experience and relation to food and food culture hasn’t blinded me to the fact that there are many ways of eating ethically—not just vegetarianism. The choices we make in regard to how we nourish ourselves have long-reaching consequences, but exactly how we interact with the earth when we bite into a bagel or have a mouthful of scrambled eggs is not always clear. Here, the Fulcrum looks at dietary choices, like eating organic, local, and seasonal, and seeks to understand how the snacks and meals we choose impact the world around us.

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Eating as engagement with the world
Joshua Ramisch is a University of Ottawa international development professor who teaches a course on food security. He stresses that although most people are removed from their food sources, it doesn’t mean they don’t interact with them.

“We are making choices; we make choices implicitly or explicitly,” he said. “People don’t consider where their food is from and what it’s about … when you take a bite of something and think about where it came from, what hands have touched it, what soil has produced it, was it sunny, was it rainy, what kind of environment [it is from]. Every time you eat is an engagement with the world. Most people don’t think about that, not on a daily basis.”

Students may say they can’t afford to follow a certain diet, they don’t have time to worry about the ethics of what goes into their mouths, or that they just couldn’t care less.

Ramisch spoke of this as a cultural problem in the way that we interact with our food.

“We ‘grab’ food. That casualness about food typifies a whole detachment that goes on,” he said.

In a culture where most students laugh off their dietary choices by explaining they can’t or don’t have time to cook, how are young people today supposed to understand the ways in which their decisions influence the world around them?

When questioned about ethical eating, Christine Bérubé, a graduate of the International Development and Globalization program at the U of O and former employee at the Sustainable Development office, brought up the saying “we are what we eat” to remind us to think about what we are putting into our bodies as the first step to considering our interactions with the world.

“Just ask and question everything,” she said. “It can be really difficult at first.”

According to Bérubé, being mindful of your diet’s impact on the world is full of nuances.

“Ethical means—to me—that each of your actions will try to not bring oppression to others, won’t take away their capacities to live their life the way they wish, and to support others in a way you think is fair, but that is also just and fair by their standards,” she explained. “This [is] also taking into account the ecosystems that cannot always speak for themselves.”

Seasons, workers, human rights
But just what kind of ethical issues are involved in the food we buy? According to the experts, there are plenty, and the range is surprising to most people.

According to Ramisch, if students want to grocery shop with good intentions, there’s a lot to think about. He described how ignorance of certain products’ natural growing seasons leads to demand for them when they are out of season. He reflected on how we normally go about grocery shopping:

“I’m not going to adapt to the seasons. I’m not going to honour the fact that it’s January or February,” he said. “[In actuality,] I should be eating things that are seasonally appropriate, or, you know, enjoy things that are of this season. I mean, we don’t ask to skate on the canal in July.”

Our perpetual access to strawberries is a prime example of how demand for year-round produce can be damaging to the environment.

“Strawberry season used to be the end of June. Occasionally you could find nasty California strawberries at other times of the year, but in the ‘80s you didn’t see strawberries year-round,” explained Ramisch. “They then became the benchmark for globalization. That became a desirable thing; you could find [strawberries] on a fruit plate 24-7, but with huge consequences.

“There are fields in California that are heavily irrigated for strawberries … this has huge environmental consequences: it’s using up a precious water resource that could be used for other things, and it’s salinizing the soil, some of the richest soil in the world. That’s making it essentially less sustainable, less manageable,” he contined.

Not only is damage done where the strawberries are grown, but getting them to you has an impact as well.

“Year-round strawberry farming obviously has huge energy consequences, when those things are being transported globally,” said Ramisch. “Again this is not just happening in California, not to pick on them. There are greenhouses all over the planet growing strawberries year-round for us.”

It’s not just the land that suffers from our food choices, though: workers’ rights become an issue with crops such as tomatoes, which are often harvested by indebted  Mexican workers and North American factory farms are creating enormous amounts of waste while housing animals in inhumane conditions. For instance, according to ChooseVeg.ca, a single pound of animal protein takes between six to 17 times more land to produce as does a single pound of soy protein.

Quinoa is abuzz in the foodie world because it’s a complete protein and a food full of nutrients. Sounds like a dietary dream, right? Well, Ramisch explained its link to food insecurity in Bolivia, where it is a staple food item. The global demand for quinoa has caused an increase in quinoa production in Bolivia. Not all Bolivians have benefitted from the boom, because it is now a globally determined price, meaning not all locals can afford it anymore. Land previously used for other crops is now being taken over for quinoa.

Ramisch recommended critical thinking when deciding to purchase foods like quinoa.

“If quinoa is replacing Doritos [in your diet], it’s probably a good thing. If it’s replacing wild rice from North America, maybe think about who you are supporting, why you are supporting, what you’re doing. Again, just reflect on it,” he said.

Vegetarianism
To many people, an obvious way to be conscious about what they are eating is through vegetarianism.

Third-year finance student Vanessa Sevilla went vegetarian and then vegan with her sister; they made the switch by betting each other to see if they could manage the changes in diet. She said that growing up in a Mexican family, they ate little meat simply because of the regular presence of beans and vegetables in the house.

“We don’t traditionally eat a lot of meat … I thought vegetarianism is healthier, it’s better, animals won’t be killed, but I hadn’t made the connection to ethics,” explained Sevilla. “I actually tried becoming a vegan for health reasons, because I had read a lot about how healthy people would usually eat a lot of vegetables. I thought, the best way to go healthy in my case is to just go vegan.”

It wasn’t necessarily a simple transition, though.

“I tried it and it just seemed impossible,” said Sevilla of her transition to veganism. “I was very addicted to cheese—especially cheese—and dairy products, like ice cream and all of that.”

What helped Sevilla and her sister make the change permanent was when they watched the movie Earthlings together. The documentary is about the suffering of animals for human use and it was enough to convince them that staying vegan was the right decision.

According to the United Nations, eating meat has become a harmful habit in North America. It asserts that raising animals for food produces more greenhouse gas emissions than cars, trucks, planes, ships, and other forms of transportation combined.

The North American food system also feeds an immense amount of grains to cattle—grains that could be used for human consumption. Even eating fish is not always guilt-free; fish farming pollutes oceans, and trawling can be harmful to marine ecosystems.

Ramisch is raising his children as vegetarians, and knows it’s not necessarily an easy transition for individuals to make. He had several pieces of advice for students, such as to not underestimate the diversity of a vegetarian diet—it’s not all nuts and twigs. Chana masala, crackers and hummus, and a portobello mushroom burger all fit deliciously into a veggie diet.

“Don’t give up!” Ramisch emphasized. “People might be against you for various reasons, but it has become so much easier [to be a vegetarian].”

Simply cutting meat products out of our diets is an easy way to have a positive impact on the environment. But there are other things that may be taken into consideration when deciding how to interact with our food systems.

Plants aren’t all innocent
U of O alumna Shelby Maunder and fourth-year international economics and development student Dan Bader live together in Ottawa and try to eat ethically. Bader believes consuming animal products is problematic given today’s methods of producing them, so he eats meat only three times a week.

“I think in order to cut back or eliminate industrial-scale animal farming, we obviously can’t have bacon for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so I’ve set this limit to moderate my consumption,” he explained.

When deciding what to buy for lunch, Bader isn’t just concerned about meat intake. He explains that not knowing where our food comes from means we could be unintentionally contributing to any number of problems, no matter the product.

“Vegetables are not innocent either,” he said. “There are lots of examples of human rights abuses in farming both in the global South and throughout North America in terms of workers’ rights and health and safety issues. Large-scale monocropping also shares many of the problems of meat farming like soil degradation, land-use change, water pollution/overuse, and others.”

Maunder’s parents played an influential role in her food choices.

“My parents own a food store, so making smart choices about food has always been a part of my routine. My dad is a butcher, so from a young age we were always very aware of where our food came from,” she said.

As a result of her upbringing, Maunder eats local when possible. She knows this is no small task for university students, but says that local food is what is most important to her when making diet choices.

According to researchers at McGill University, eating local is a good diet choice for many reasons. Since local food doesn’t have to travel as far to get to you, it helps reduce greenhouse gases; the local economy is supported; and Canadian food standards are some of the strictest in the world, ensuring it’s safe.

Maunder explained that simply being aware of where your food comes from is a great start.

“Start small if you’re new to informed eating. I always cared about where my meat came from because it was ingrained in me by my dad, but when I started university I bought the produce that was cheapest with little regard to where it came from,” she said. “Once you start the trend for a part of your diet, it’s easy to get into thinking more about all your foods.”

So how do you inform yourself about what you’re eating?

“You can get a good start at informing yourself at the website Ewg.org,” Bader said. “They produce a list of the ‘dirty dozen’ and the ‘clean fifteen’ that show the level of pesticides found in different conventionally grown crops.”

Ramisch recommended looking for the interesting eats on campus, such as the slow-food soup truck called Stone Soup Foodworks, which is parked near the Campus Station bus stop.

If you’re trying to eat local, Bérubé recommends eating wild meats when possible. Eating local can be difficult in a cold climate, so she suggests learning to grow small plants in your apartment.

Making decisions
Interacting with food conscientiously comes down to critical thinking. There are so many debates surrounding the most ethical way of eating, and thinking about every bite of every food we eat  isn’t realistic, so getting as much information as possible is important.

Vegetarianism is now a personal choice for me, even though it did not start out that way. I eat the way I do for several reasons. Livestock causes pollution of the land and air. Grains that are grown for livestock take up significant space on our planet, even though there is no reason why humans can’t live off of plant based diets and be perfectly healthy. For me, the way animals are consumed today is unsustainable and I also find factory and industrial farming to be animal rights issues. I could continue about my reasons for vegetarianism, but it is essentially a personal decision to be as kind to the earth as possible. I want to know what I’m eating, and while this might not always be possible, the way meat is produced today means it may contain antibiotics and hormones that I likely don’t want to consume. I find that vegetarianism helps remind me of my relationship with what I eat.

Decide what is important to you, and stick to it. Ethical eating to me means protecting our earth, and I do that through vegetarianism; others may value different factors in their food choices. There is no denying that our food systems are not perfect; in our culture of detachment from our food sources, thinking about what we are eating can bring people together and create a lot of valuable reflection. People who try to make informed choices and stick to those choices might even find their food becomes a lot tastier as well as more rewarding.