Our Responsibility As Consumers in a Deteriorating Ecosystem

By Anthony Nicaj

Western media outlets often provide conflicting reports on global warming, but empirical evidence has demonstrated that our atmospheric conditions are fluctuating--and for the first time in human history, we've been able to monitor our direct impact on this natural phenomenon. I am not writing to debate the veracity of our climate's wavering, but to offer some food for thought concerning our decisions towards what we eat and what we buy and the larger implications behind these choices.

In an interview with San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, acclaimed food journalist Michael Pollan draws connections between our health and our environment and discusses the hidden costs associated with our nation's predilection towards fast food: “The industrial food chain does produce food more cheaply, in terms of the price you pay at McDonald’s or the supermarket,” replies Pollan, “but the real cost of cheap food is not reflected in those prices. You’re paying for it in your tax dollars because you’re giving farmers $20 billion a year in subsidies. You’re paying for it in public health costs. These subsidies make unhealthy food cheaper than healthy food, and so our country is facing an obesity epidemic. The antibiotics you need for your son’s illness don’t work anymore because we’ve squandered them all on farm animals. We can’t take fish from the Gulf of Mexico because of the nitrogen runoff from agricultural fertilizers. The people of Des Moines, Iowa, have to drink bottled water in the summer because their water is poisoned. Those are all costs. The phrase I use is ‘the high cost of cheap food.’ ”

With this said, Pollan doesn't opt for the extreme solution where we all convert to vegetarianism or veganism simply because certain lands are more suitable towards animal cultivation vs. plant-based. The cumulative costs of transporting said vegetables further distances, along with the excavation and processing of fossil fuels to accomplish this task only jacks up that hidden environmental cost. The monoculture system subsidized by the American government is a failed state where the land is used up and never replenished. On a quick side-note, it was pointed out to me recently that although vegans will often proclaim the virtues of their diet, they often fail to recognize the incredible amount of pest control necessary to create their "cruelty-free" sustenance.

The tenets of capitalism would argue that agri-business decisions are solely profit-based and any long-term concern towards our overall well-being or the health of our ecosystem is inconsequential. I'm not saying that capitalism itself is an evil force that plunders the Earth for its own benefit, but rather calling attention to a system that doesn't take the big picture into consideration. I feel as though it is my role to educate those that I cook for—finding the balance between my grocery budget, a guest's dining experience, and the portion control necessary to feed them properly is always a challenge. In terms of sourcing, I skew towards locally produced animal proteins with transparent practices. Throughout the years, I've pushed for a smaller animal protein ratio to vegetables and grains. In a world where our sustenance and the way we think about it seems tainted, I like to think that I can make decisions in the grocery store or the farmer's market that will help mitigate not only future health issues but also contribute to a more mindful means of consumption.