Welcome to month 2 of the Kind Consumer Challenge! This topic is a doozy, and is one that also carries a lot of baggage, so let’s set the stage before we dive on in. And if you're new here, be sure to join the challenge; I'll send you a worksheet to help you along, as well as an ethical shopping guide with some specific brands I love.
Ethical food can mean a lot of things. We have to consider environmental factors of the food we consume, when it comes to the use of pesticides, carbon emissions when our food is transported, and more. We consider human rights violations that are present in many foods. We consider animal rights. We consider how to reduce our food waste. We also should consider how our food is packaged, but since we covered plastic in January and will cover paper as well, we won’t delve too much into packaging this month. I’d love to take on all these areas, and maybe you would too, but I’ll say it for the hundredth time: don’t be overwhelmed. See what is doable, do it well, and energize yourself into the step after that.
Further complicating things is that food labeling is a giant mess, to put it lightly. Anyone who has tried to eat a cleaner diet has learned, for instance, that “natural” means nothing, whereas “organic” food carries well-defined criteria (but also has more than one label related to it - ugh!). And labels and requirements vary from one country to the next - so for my international friends, I apologize for how US-centric this post is, and hope you can find good resources for where you live too!
Ethical food can also mean a lot of different things to different people. For example, some seek to purchase meat products that were produced humanely and with respect to the animal and the earth. Others feel there is no ethical way to eat animal products and avoid them altogether. Others eat dairy but draw the line at meat. Our goal here won’t be to all land on the exact same diet, but rather, to go about making our decisions mindfully and to take steps toward what we feel is kind.
And even with this lengthy post, I feel I'm only scratching the surface. There is so much to know and learn. I wanted to talk more about dairy. I wanted to talk about risks to biodiversity. And I am not even talking about food from a health perspective (although of course there's a lot of overlap between buying ethical food and buying healthy food). (For anyone who wants to know more about eating a clean diet, I highly recommend 100 Days of Real Food and the work of Michael Pollan as great places to start your journey.)
If you ever feel like understanding our food system requires a PhD or a hundred hours of research, you're not alone. It's frustrating. Which is why we have each other. I am absolutely not an expert, but I did try to compile some food for thought (see what I did there?) to help you make sense of it all - or at least, identify a couple of key areas you can improve in.
So, let’s get to it. As usual, we start with some bleak news - but end with a reminder that we can all be the change we want to see in the world. Warning: there are a lot of links here. A lot. But focus in on the areas that most pertain to you. Do you only eat shrimp once a year? Then maybe learning the ins and outs of the shrimp industry isn’t your area of focus now. So skip that rabbit trail and zoom in on the areas that will be most meaningful to you as you move toward change this month. And grab your worksheet (don't have one? Sign up here) so you can take your "planning week" to turn your swimming thoughts into a solid plan of action!
I’ve put a lot of thought into what I eat in recent years. Watching Food Inc and reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan several years ago were what introduced me to health and ethical issues, and these are a great place to start. But as I’ve tried to dig in and refine some concepts I’ve learned in preparation for this month’s challenge, I came up short on some answers I’d hoped to get. Our food system has changed so drastically in recent decades, and I feel we’re still in the wild west here, with confusing labels, varying requirements by country, and a lack of cohesive, comprehensive certifying bodies for many foods that would, in a perfect world, tell us with a simple label that the food is made with care for the planet and its people. If you’re looking for a simple formula to tell you exactly what to buy, well, let me tell you right now that creating that is above my pay grade. I did, however, come away with some key facts and resources to help us make more informed, if not perfect, decisions.
The food industry makes up one third of our greenhouse gas emissions (source), and most of this is from the meat industry - especially beef - since it represents an inefficient transformation of plant energy into meat. An excellent article from the University of Michigan outlines this in detail, and offers some practical steps to reduce our carbon footprint, such as, “Eat local, vegetarian, or organic foods. For non-vegetarians, replace some beef consumption with chicken.” And not all beef is created equal; most cows are fed corn, which generates carbon emissions in its production and transportation to the cattle, whereas cows that are grass-fed are healthier and better for the planet. The article gives estimated impacts of various changes we would make, in terms of actual carbon emissions saved. Eating organic food helps reduce our footprint, by avoiding the use of harmful chemical sprays; further, “Organic food typically requires 30-50% less energy during production but requires one-third more hours of human labor compared to typical farming practices, making it more expensive” according to the article. Eating local food reduces the footprint that’s introduced as a food is transported - sometimes around the globe - to get to you. Going entirely local and organic may not be feasible for everyone, so where can you begin? The “define” step below has some ideas.
There is also the environmental issue of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. GMOs are a highly controversial topic. You can see below** for detail of why I try to opt out of eating GMOs and supporting companies that create them. Regardless of your stance on the science regarding safety, many GMOs, such as corn and soy, are leading to increased use of polluting pesticides and herbicides. To learn more and make your own informed choice, see nongmoproject.org.
2) Human Rights
Let’s not beat around the bush. Slaves, as well as underpaid or abused laborers, produce much of our food. Remember how you felt as a kid learning about the slave industry in the United States, and naively thinking slavery was over? Suppose you were alive in 1800, and your local grocer carried a pound of sugar produced on a plantation with slave labor for 10 cents and a pound of sugar produced with paid labor for 12 cents. You’d pay 12 cents, right? After all, 10 cents isn’t *really* the cost of the sugar. Someone was robbed - robbed of their time, their dignity, their safety, their homeland, their family, perhaps their childhood. The sugar should not cost 10 cents. Rather than view 12 cents as outrageously expensive, we’d do well to shift our thinking: 10 cents is artificially cheap. It represents an externalized cost that the producer chose not to bear, by instead requiring another person to bear it.
We have this same choice at the grocery store today. I am not here to shame, and I also want to be sensitive to people’s differing financial situations, but please, be aware of the cost of slave-produced food. Let’s make sure we understand some of the foods with the worst violations, and how to recognize better alternatives.
“The [International Labor Organization]’s latest estimate is that more than 3.5 million people worldwide now work under forced labor conditions in agriculture (including fishing and forestry). This means that forced labor has played a role in the supply chains of many of the most popular food and drinks.” This is a problem in the United States as well, where an estimated 5% of farm workers are victims of forced labor. “Also significant is the fact that food companies generate significant profits by using forced labor. The ILO estimates that forced labor in agriculture generates approximately $9 billion in annual profits.” (https://civileats.com/2016/10/25/did-slaves-produce-your-food-forced-labor/)
What are some foods with the worst violations? It was hard to find a clear answer to this, but I think it makes sense to ask, what are certifying bodies focused on?
Seafood is an area of great concern, with unsustainable fishing practices harming our environment. Learn more about this and what you can do as a consumer at seafoodwatch.org, which focuses on the environmental side. On the social responsibility side, shrimp is an area to focus on; according to the Washington Post, “An extensive investigation confirmed that much of the peeled shrimp that makes its way into the American, European and Asian markets is being processed in horrendous conditions by people who have essentially become modern-day slaves.” The Aquaculture Stewardship Council lists some of the worst brands, and suggests looking for domestically produced shrimp from land-based aquaculture or shrimp certified by them.
Tomatoes have a history of many human rights violations in the United States, including forced or underpaid labor, child labor, and sexual assault. This came to a head in 2011 when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers succeeded in establishing the Fair Food Agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. They established the Fair Food Program to scale up their efforts, with strict standards for participating tomato producers and retailers; see fairfoodstandards.org for a list and details on the code of conduct they are legally bound to, and for history of the program. Further information is at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/04/tomato-school-undoing-the-evils-of-the-fields/237593/.
Chocolate is discussed extensively by Tsh at Art of Simple; in short, much of the chocolate in our supermarkets was created by child slaves.
Coffee also has issues with labor violations (example).
3) Animal Rights
As I said, people have many varying opinions on what is acceptable when it comes to the use of animals in our diet. For those who choose to eat meat, I mentioned above that reducing our meat intake can have a significant environmental effect; in addition, we’ll do well to learn about how animals are treated when we are using them for meat or dairy. If you aren't familiar with inhumane and environmentally harmful CAFOs, check out The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And labels don’t always make things easier; for instance, free-range eggs sound like they’d be from chickens who spend all day happily pecking at worms outside...but in reality, the label is nearly meaningless, and eggs from pastured eggs are better, in terms of the hens’ well-being and the nutritional value. When it comes to other animal products, my understanding is that our best option is to find a local farmer we trust who can attest to how they treat the animals; buying locally also reduces the carbon footprint of our purchase.
Certifications and Features to Consider
Beware of labels that show happy cows chilling in the grass, or meaningless words like "natural." Get familiar with some key certifications to make informed decisions.
Benefit Corporation (B Corps): The B Corps certification is much newer than organic or fair trade, but is important to know about as ethical consumers; it encompasses many elements of a company’s practices, such as sourcing of materials or ingredients, workers’ rights, environmental care, corporate governance, and more. The idea is to go beyond just “do no harm” and really focus on the potential business has to change the world. While “organic” only refers to farmed goods, and “fair trade” generally applies to farmed or handmade goods, B Corps include 130 industries, so you’ll be hearing much more about them throughout this challenge. Learn more and see the list of B Corps in the “food and beverage” category here, and start to look for the little circle-B emblem on your products.
Fair Trade: Fair Trade is also more than just “do no harm.” It ensures adequate wages, safe working conditions, environmental care, and more, but it’s also focused on marginalized communities so they can flourish through partnership in the global marketplace. Fair Trade Federation members are companies that ensure good practices from their suppliers, and who partner with them to create a better world. Look for products that are *certified* by the Fair Trade Federation, ideally. The Fair Trade movement focuses on coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, sugar, rice, and more. There are multiple certifying bodies, but know that Fair Trade USA is a label that carries controversy, because its requirements have become watered down over time, favoring large plantations rather than small-scale farmers as originally intended (see a discussion of fair trade by an industry leader, Equal Exchange). Fair trade offerings from large corporations are a good step, but to encourage an overhaul of their practices rather than token efforts, we should ideally invest in FTF-certified groups. Here’s a lengthy article about various labels for coffee. The best option is fair-trade certified by the Fair Trade Federation; next best is certification by Fair Trade USA.
Certified organic: look for the seal showing USDA organic certification, but know that not all are created equal. There’s a difference between “100% organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients.” All are a good step and are heavily regulated, but read here to dig deeper into the definitions. Also, note that many smaller companies and farms may use organic practices without acquiring certification, since certification is a long and costly process. Chatting with the farmer at your local farmers’ market can help you learn about the practices they use and what you’re comfortable with (do they spray frequently, just on occasion when natural methods were unsuccessful, or not at all?).
Non-GMO: nongmoproject.org verifies GMO-free products, so if avoiding GMOs is important to you, you can learn from their site which foods are most likely to be modified and look for their seal when shopping. Note that certified organic ingredients are by requirement GMO-free.
Local and Seasonal: This isn’t a perfectly defined term, of course, but buying local, in-season food is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet. And know that you might meet a farmer at the farmers' market who didn't shell out the money for organic certification, or who opted to supplement his cows' feed with his neighbor's non-organic corn rather than with organic corn that was transported hundreds of miles. I would be happy to support that farmer rather than insist on organic certification.
You might be ready to overhaul your kitchen; or, you might determine the five items you use most, where you can make the most impact as a first step. As you read, jot down some ideas of where to focus this month, based on what you have capacity for and what will yield the biggest impact based on your current diet.
Audit your Kitchen
One step we can all take in our planning week is to audit our kitchen. Most likely, your food isn’t 100% from your backyard garden or an organic farmer down the street. Make a list of what you have on hand. Then, consider the following, particularly for foods you use frequently:
Coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, and sugar: best option is certified by the Fair Trade Federation; Fair Trade USA is an inferior certification but still helpful. And here's the thing: you don't need chocolate. Truly. If the cost of fair trade is too high, then that means you can't afford chocolate at the price it should be. Just don't buy it.
Seafood: See which species to choose or avoid, and look for seafood with a certification recommended by Seafood Watch such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, who recommends looking for domestically produced shrimp from land-based aquaculture. If you like canned tuna like me, check out this list of how 20 brands stacked up.
Meat: as mentioned above, meat is a huge contributor of carbon emissions, so we’d all do well to at least eat less of it - for instance, by instituting “meatless Mondays” - and to purchase meat that is locally produced or from a reputable brand such as Applegate Farms. Perhaps the organic, grass-fed, local beef is more expensive; can you challenge yourself to purchase it and mix it with cooked red lentils when making tacos this month, to make up for the added cost? Some areas even have meat CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) you could look into. And, if you need some inspiration into the vast world of plant-based cooking, my friend Jessa recommends Minimalist Baker as a great place to find simple, delicious recipes. Challenge yourself to try a few meatless recipes this month.
Produce: those of you who know how to grow your own food, power to you. I am a complete failure at gardening! But, other great options are local farmers’ markets or CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture; click here for a great resource on Madison-area CSAs). To see which types of produce contain the highest levels of pesticide, see the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” guide, which is updated regularly. They also have a “clean fifteen” list of produce that have the lowest pesticide load. These lists will help you prioritize where to make a change.
Tomatoes: after the successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, several retailers and restaurants have signed on to adhere to strict guidelines in the sourcing of their tomatoes under the Fair Food Program. These include Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods.
Try to eat seasonally and locally, so your food doesn’t have to travel so far to get to your plate. It's winter, so this is more of a challenge; learn what's in season near you and find some recipes to stretch your cooking chops.
Palm Oil: you may have heard about palm oil when a group of Girl Scouts petitioned for Girl Scout Cookies to use sustainably produced palm oil. This crop is in many packaged foods (as well as toiletries), so look at your labels, and look for palm oil certified by the Rainforest Alliance; their site discusses the risks, noting “the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations has also fueled deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and the displacement of indigenous forest communities.”
For other grocery items, such as pantry items or condiments, organic is best, but not always feasible. If, like me, you want to avoid GMOs, familiarize yourself with the resources at the Non GMO Project and look for their certification.
Make a list of the brands you purchase and look up each one on betterworldshopper.org or thegoodshoppingguide.com; these grade companies on their social and environmental responsibility. (Note - I was disappointed to see that Better World Shopper doesn't give details behind each brand's score, but they're a fairly comprehensive resource and you can dig further if you want to learn about a particular brand.) Avoid companies that scored low in Know the Chain's review of anti-trafficking efforts, like Kraft Heinz, Tyson, and Hershey. Are there some scores you don’t feel good about? Let’s say you’ve been buying Heinz ketchup, which scores an F on betterworldshopper.org. Ouch! Your next step is to search the “condiments” category, make note of companies that score well, and plan to switch once you run out. Another great place to look for ethical food - and even buy it there - is thrivemarket.com (use this link to get 25% off your first order). You can find brands there, either to purchase there or to make note of for your grocery shopping, by filtering on different values: B Corp, Fair Trade Certified, Certified Organic, Sustainably Caught Fish, non-GMO certified, and more, as well as dietary requirements such as gluten-free or vegan. Although I hesitate at the carbon footprint of having items shipped to me from Thrive, it’s a great resource to keep in the mix, especially if you don’t live close to a grocery store that carries what you need.
You can also do an audit of your restaurant choices. For any chains you frequent, see how they stack up at betterworldshopper.org in the “restaurants” category, or look for great alternatives at eatwellguide.org. Swap out your Qdoba habit for a Chipotle one on those days you just need something quick!
Finally, a quick note on waste. Part of eating ethically is reducing the waste we create. Knowing our food takes a toll on the environment - not to mention our wallet - should motivate us to ensure its harvest wasn’t in vain. If you find yourself throwing away icky spinach or spoiled ground beef on a regular basis, make a point this month to introduce better habits, such as regular reviews of what’s in the fridge, freezing food before it goes bad if you won’t have a chance to eat it, donating food, researching better storage methods to make it last longer, giving food to a friend before it goes bad, or improving your meal planning skills.
Whew! This month’s ideas for our “define” step didn’t fall into nice, neat bullet points like they did in January, but hopefully you’ve come away with a clear list of changes to make this month. As usual, our first week is dedicated to planning, so we can take on our defined goals in week 2. One major question you’ll need to answer this week is which brands to buy, and where. Your next few trips to the grocery store might take a bit longer. You’ll need to search the shelves for better options. You may need to ask if they carry other brands, and if not, tell them why you encourage it. You may need to find another store! If you’re in Madison, great places to shop are Willy Street Co-Op, Whole Foods, and of course the farmer’s markets and local CSAs. If you’re not here in Madison, ask your friends or go to eatwellguide.org to see if they recommend a store in your area. Did other action items come up? Maybe you need to collect a few meatless recipes to try out this month, or research which species of fish would be a good alternative in some of your favorite recipes, or plan a tour of fair trade coffee shops to find your favorite blend (oh, the agony)? Make note of any other “to do” items that will help you succeed this month. Good luck, and I’ll see you over in the Facebook group!
**A note about GMOs: GMOs are distinct from organisms that are simply cross-bred to have certain qualities; rather, the DNA of one species, such as a virus, is extracted and artificially forced into the DNA of another completely unrelated species, to give it new qualities: corn that can withstand heavier pesticide use, salmon that can grow bigger, rice that contains greater nutritional value, and more. I don’t want to paint GMOs with a broad brush; some of this technology is designed to alleviate world hunger, and I like to believe that the people behind it are well-intentioned. However, others are designed to increase profits, and they end up making farmers more reliant on pesticides and herbicides (from companies like Monsanto who, incidentally, design, patent, and sell the corresponding seeds). I generally try to avoid GMOs for a few reasons. I am absolutely not anti-science, but I am someone who thinks irreversible technology should be entered into with great caution - a level of caution I’m not seeing from the GM industry. I don’t think the upsides of this technology outweigh the risks. My understanding is that studies generally point to their safety for human consumption, but only being a couple of decades in, I don’t think we can fully grasp their impact, on either the human body or the planet - both of which contain complexities we cannot fathom. And, unlike a drug we could recall if unforeseen risks were discovered, we cannot recall GMOs; these science experiments are out in our environment now. They even cross-pollinate with other plants, introducing GM technology into fields of farmers who didn’t want it - and, making matters worse, the companies who create and patent GM seeds have sued such farmers when their technology is found in their fields! Further, many GMOs lead to accelerating pesticide or herbicide use. All this together makes me wary of supporting GM technology with my dollars. And when GMOs are defended because of their potential to alleviate world hunger, my response is that I’d rather see us invest in other creative solutions to improve access to healthy food, rather than make irreversible changes to the DNA of organisms that make up our complex ecosystem. Furthermore, given that 64 countries require GMO labeling but the United States does not, I hesitate to support the companies that insist on keeping consumers in the dark about what’s in their food. But we don’t have to be in the dark!