Hi, Happy Earth Day!
My name is Amanda Taylor, and I write about the environment for the L Magazine. My beat is pretty homegrown and local: small things you can do to lessen your impact on the environment, green happenings in the city, and the like. I write about food-related issues, from permaculture to greenmarkets, a lot: besides being one of the chief pleasures of human existence, food is a great, and crucial, way of addressing, and lessening, our environmental impact. My love of food has played a huge role in my becoming more environmentally aware, and the state of the environment has played an equally big role in my thinking more about food, what to eat, and where it should come from.
So when I was asked what I wanted to talk about today, the easy answer was food; and the two food issues that most concern me, vegetarianism and food waste.
But to be honest, I really didn't know how to tie the two together: I became a vegetarian when I was a teenager. While I later came to appreciate the environmental impact of vegetarianism, it began as an ethical issue for me. When I was a teenager, amazingly, no one talked about global warming at all. Food waste is something I got into at an early age too, first as an occasionally dumpster-diving punk—it seemed terribly badass, as an adolescent from the Upper East Side, to pull stuff, especially food, out of the trash. Then as I got a little older, I saw it as a path to a kind of food justice, through groups like Food Not Bombs, which, if you're not familiar with their work, feeds the hungry with food recuperated from the trash of markets, bakeries, and stores. Dumpstering, which has also come to be known as Freeganing, was a way to subvert various systems I found myself in opposition to: factory farming, industrial agriculture, and multinational food companies. Beyond the politics, dumpster diving was free, fun, and happened late at night: I was a poor night owl with anti-capitalist tendencies and a strong stomach, it was a perfect match.
Still, I've never really found the link between vegetarianism and freeganism—it's a connection I feel, viscerally, because I care about these two approaches to our food supply, but planning this speech, I found it hard to articulate that connection in any real way, except to say that both were food issues that had to do with the environment.
Then last week I had a dream about giving this speech: in my dream I was brilliant, and the talk was full of great ideas—I had an enormously complex diagram of food systems that I explained to you all, and at the end I got a standing ovation. Marion Nestle, who teaches here at NYU, and Michael Pollan, two of my food heroes, were down here in the front row, and in my dream they stood up cheering. It was great, but when I woke up I couldn't remember any of my presentation, except the first line 'Where are we?'
It didn't seem like much of a question. Or not the RIGHT question. I wasn't going to get any help with this speech by tapping my subconscious, it seemed. But then I thought some more.
Where ARE we?
Well, for starters, we're here in the United States, the meat-eatingest country on the planet. In the USA, in the year 2000 (the last year I could find detailed numbers for), we killed 8.9 billion animals for food—another 857 million died in food production, before slaughter. And that was 10 years ago—our meat consumption has been growing steadily. Wikipedia tells me that 'around 10 billion animals are slaughtered every year in 5,700 slaughterhouses' in the US.
Our meat eating, as an end result of our food system, has made us the fattest people on the planet, and, as many of you have probably already heard, our fatness is having a direct dramatic effect on our health, and our life expectancies. Kids today will live shorter lives than their parents, because of what they eat. And they eat a lot of meat.
A report released just this week by a group of retired military officers calling for healthier school lunches declares an impending national security crisis if obesity rates aren't reduced: one in four young people are too fat to join the military.
I'm not eager to send anyone off to fight, fat or thin, but you know things are bad when retired military types are lobbying for healthier school lunches.
Four years ago the UN released a report titled 'meat's long shadow' which declared that meat production has a greater negative impact on the environment than any other area of human activity—growing animals for food produces 51% of the world's production of greenhouse gas emissions, more than all our of transportation—cars, trains, and planes—put together.
According to a 2004 report, about 70 percent of the grain produced in this country goes to feed farmed animals—the WORLD's cattle consume enough calories to feed 8.7 billion people—more than the world's total population. 1.5 billion people could live on the grain and soy being fed to American cattle alone: as much as I want to take the animals' side in this, and tell everyone to give up meat to lessen their suffering, it's we, the people, who are really losing out by participating in the industrial meat system.
Raising animals for food degrades or destroys ecosystems, generates air and water pollution, and consumes precious fresh water. More than 90 percent of the rainforest that's been destroyed is now being used to graze livestock or grow grain to feed food animals. Then there's e-coli problems, and mad cow disease; high cholesterol and heart disease; sinking water tables and eroding topsoil... the list goes on and on. Where are we? We're trapped by our habit of eating meat in a system that is destroying the environment, harming our health, and subjecting billions of animals to unspeakable suffering. Switching to a vegetarian diet does more to lessen one's environmental impact than almost anything: more than switching to a hybrid car from an SUV, more than eating locally grown food. Going vegan a couple of times a week does more for the environment than going totally local.
Transportation of food accounts for about 11% of its carbon footprint, not insignificant, but production amounts to more than 80%—and animal products are far more intensive on the production side—just imagine the amount of energy needed to slaughter and process one billion living creatures, and then clean up the mess.
So, again, where are we? We're here, in New York City, in Manhattan, far from most of the sources of our food. We're surrounded by food choices—amazing restaurants serving every cuisine known to man or woman. Delis and grocery stores are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to provide us with whatever we desire. Asparagus in December? No problem—we'll fly it in from the southern hemisphere. Ten kinds of peppers? If you're grocery store doesn't have them, go to one that does.
All that food comes in by plane, train, or truck—I'm not even going to go into the energy expended stocking our fair city's shops, kitchens, and pantries. What's truly shocking is what gets trucked right back out, days or weeks, or months, later: thousands of tons of uneaten food.
This illustration is from the New York Times, published in 2008 to accompany an article on food waste. It's a representation of a single family's share of the food wasted in a month, in retail establishments and in the home. It DOESN"T include any food wasted on the farm, in distribution, or by wholesalers.
In other words, it's a fraction of the total amount of food wasted to provide for an American family of four.
Almost half of the food produced in this country goes to waste, uneaten. That means half of the fruit, half of the vegetables, and most shockingly, half of the meat. Food waste has more than doubled since 1974—we're now wasting about 1,400 calories per person per day.
Food waste accounts for 25% of freshwater used, and it accounts 300 million barrels of oil every year.
Most people assume that "something is being done" about food waste—when I tell people about the food that's being wasted they tell me I should contact someone—that I should call City Harvest, or another organization that collects unwanted and uneaten food for the poor. Few understand that there is simply too much food, too thinly spread out across this city, for organizations to recuperate it all.
Here are some photos from my new project, a blog documenting my daily forays into the trash, and my finds there.
When I've described my own efforts to save food from the trash, I've been accused of stealing food from the poor, and I've been told that as a relatively privileged, college educated, partially employed person I should leave the food for homeless people.
But the sad reality is that there's more than the homeless can eat too—and even if they recuperated all of the good food we trash, without kitchens they have no way of dealing with the raw meat, uncooked vegetables and grains, and random ingredients that really need to be made into something. Without a refrigerator one can only take and save so much: recently I found a bag containing 40+ yogurts and 8 dozen organic eggs. Had I not been able to store them in my fridge I might have been able to use just one or two yogurts, and without a stove the eggs would have been completely useless.
Food waste, if it were stopped from being waste, could feed many people in need, obviously, could be used in biodigesters to generate energy, and could be composted to enrich our community gardens, parks and farms. Unfortunately we're not doing any of these things.
For the greatest impact, food waste could be prevented before it ever IS at all, by scaling back our food production.
So, where are we?
It would appear that we're caught in a food system that is failing us on all fronts. With a nationwide system built around animals as food, and heavy subsidies of corn and grain that are being fed to those animals, we do exponentially more harm to our environment with our diet than we need to and we produce far more food than we need to survive or even prosper. 30 percent of non ice-bound land on the planet is given over to livestock. Our big picture is none too pretty, nationally or globally, thanks to industrial agriculture, and the waste it generates.
Closer to home, as our food moves toward us, and then comes to live among us—in our shops, restaurants and kitchens, we fail it, letting it rot, putting it in the trash, or rejecting it for insignificant flaws and blemishes. We slap "sell-by" and "best by" dates on processed foods that are largely meaningless—last week I found two bags of vitamin water, some 150 individual bottles, that had been trashed because these concoctions of sugar and water had "expired." While vitamin water hardly counts as food, it stands as a good example of the foolishness of sell-by dates: I've eaten hundreds of expired meals over the years, and have yet to encounter a problem.
Some people, myself included, contend that "best by" dates are a part of the food industry's attempt to get us to consume more than we need—inevitably, those dates pass, either in the store or at home, and food gets thrown out. And more importantly to the food makers, at least, has to be replaced on the shelves.
I'm not suggesting that all of you get your food from the trash—I know digging in dumpsters isn't for everyone. But in the same way that we can turn our attention to the plight of farm animals, so obvious in its brutality, and the excesses of meat production, which are exponentially more wasteful than feeding ourselves needs to be, I hope we can turn and look at the end results of our food system, the bags we walk by every night on our sidewalks, the dumpsters that are filled and emptied, and filled again, without our ever noticing what's going into them.
The most damaging parts of our quest for food, for nourishment, are the most hidden. Most of us will never see the inside of a slaughter house, or a chicken shed containing 100,000 chickens under one roof, because there are a lot of people who know that if we did we could hardly believe how awful it is, and we might actually change our behavior as a result. Most of us have never opened a heavy black plastic bag outside a grocery store, to find 50 pounds of raw meat, packaged and discarded not because its bad, but because it's a little discolored, or the new shipment came in today, and there just isn't room on the shelves.
But these things exist, and we can face up to them, and in confronting them, by changing our behavior, and our habits—from not wasting food at home, to lobbying our schools to feed our children better, and waste less, we can work for a better food system, a smaller food system, one that's gentler on us, and on the planet.