Shifting Gears: Updating Ethics for Sustainable Eating

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As I walk down the bread aisle, I scan the prices for whole wheat loaves, eventually taking a Trader Joe’s brand loaf off the shelf for $3.50. Not too bad, I think, stowing the loaf in my cart next to a dozen eggs, a package each of shredded cheese and triple washed salad greens, and a few oranges. Pushing my cart on down the frozen food aisle, I survey the store. Immense; abundant; limitless; these words come to mind to describe Trader Joe’s grocery store. From the frozen chicken to the vanilla cookies, red wines to apple pies, French roasted coffee to my triple washed salad greens, all the food in this store attests to this sense of limitless variety and abundance.

It’s odd. Early European colonists and later American frontier settlers used similar words when describing the New World, seeing limitless abundance there for the taking. The idea of limitless abundance for our society to use remains with us today, and this grocery store expresses it very clearly. What might go unnoticed are the harms and repercussions our food system inflicts on the environment and ourselves, but with closer inspection we see an inherently damaging and unsustainable food system, as well as the ethics that created it. If we are to move onto a sustainable path for our food, we must also shift into new sustainable ethics to cut off the problems of industrial agriculture off at their roots.

But first, how exactly is our industrial agriculture unsustainable? One major turning point in agriculture came with the Green Revolution, bringing about numerous changes to how America and other developed countries produce food today. Agriculture came to rely on artificial fertilizers and biocides and large energy inputs, causing decreased biodiversity and waste and degrade water, soil, and other natural resources.

An article published Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker notes that pesticide use disrupts the balance between predators and prey, and causes ecosystems to become unstable, while only 0.1% of applied pesticides reach the targeted pests. The rest pollutes soil and waterways. Nitrogen fertilizer from croplands contaminates soil and runoff in waterways causes excess algae growth, leading to water deprived of oxygen that forms large “dead zones” devoid of all marine life. Industrial food systems also require large amounts of energy, particularly from fossil fuels, accounting for 17% of all fossil fuel use in the United States and 20% of the CO2 emissions that drive climate change. Large amounts of fuel go to transporting food items from farms to our plaits, with the average food item traveling 1,300 miles to reach the costumer. Selective and specialized crop breeding results in monocultures and loss of biodiversity, where crop varieties become decreasingly resistant to disease and pests. Inefficiencies in water use result in large wastes, with only 45% of irrigation water reaching crops; the rest is lost to runoff and evaporation. According to Daniel Chiras’s Environmental Science, since large scale agriculture began in the U.S., one third of the nation’s topsoil has been lost to erosion.

These harmful practices reflect a mode of thinking, the Frontier ethic, which makes several assumptions about our environment and our relationship to it. Chiras distills these assumptions into three main points: we have unlimited natural resources; humans are separate from nature; and our success and progress come through control and domination of nature. These assumptions fit to the harmful practices of our industrial food system like puzzle pieces. Wasting huge amounts of water, we act like our water supplies are endless. Excessively using pesticides and fertilizers pollutes and damages soil, water, and ecosystems, and we justify this destruction by asserting that just because certain ecosystems are threatened, it certainly won’t affect our lifestyles all that much, showing our sense of detachment from the natural world. We link controlling and dominating nature by using these pesticides, growing huge monocultures, and constructing waterways with our society’s sense of success and progress. But these assumptions begin to crumble in the light of knowing the damaging consequences of our industrial food system, and the unsustainability of continuing to act with the Frontier ethic becomes clear.

As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” To move out of our unsustainable agriculture to a sustainable one, we must also change our thinking, embrace a new ethic. Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic provides a new perspective for us. Changing the human role of conqueror to member of the natural word, the Land Ethic places a certain responsibility on our actions, and makes us own up to them. This follows how Chiras describes a new set of assumptions sustainable ethics makes: earth has limited natural resources, and they are not only for our use; humans are part of nature, subject to its laws; and our success stems from efforts to cooperate with the forces and systems of nature.

Looking around this grocery store, I see variety, abundance, and progress, yes. But when I include the wastes, the pollution, and the energy inefficiency of this food system that affects not only ecosystems’ futures but our own, I also see an inherently unsustainable way of living. These realities undermine the assumptions of the Frontier ethic thinking, and point to an opportunity to shift gears into a new ethic. The Land Ethic and sustainable values that recognize earth as a finite system, our unbreakable tie to it, and our success comes from our ability to work with rather than attempt to conquer the earth, provide a stepping stone onto a path of sustainability.

I believe that cultivating local sustainable agriculture allows us to quickly move into this new set of ethics by enacting their core values. Methods that maintain and enhance water and soil health through minimum tilling and crop rotation, grow crops with high integration of biodiversity, and use resources efficiently, along with many more elements, all work to create a sustainable local agriculture. Whether for a dinner at home or at a local restaurant, buying local food greatly reduces food miles, processing, and packaging, and strengthens the local economy. From growing a small window garden to subscribing to a full season of Community Supported Agriculture produce, local agriculture helps us question old assumptions, learn of their harmful consequences, and find new ways of thinking to create a sustainable way of life.

Posted by Keenan B.P.

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4 Responses to Shifting Gears: Updating Ethics for Sustainable Eating

  1. John says:

    Really like this. Thanks for the blog, and this thoughtful post. Keep it up!

  2. Thanks, John! We appreciate the feedback.

  3. Mary says:

    Yes, great info in this post! I’m writing some fiction on this very subject and find this blog to be a reliable resource. Thanks for the inspiration too.

  4. C.C. says:

    Appreciate the thinking here, a lot of ground covered in this post, Keenan BP!

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