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July 17, 2006

Eat Your Politics

Last week, Ellen Goodman published a column in the Boston Globe expressing her disgust at the decision by Whole Foods to stop selling live lobsters. Goodman urges us to get real. Lobsters are, after all, insects, and she suggests that there are more important things to worry about that insects' quality of life. I can't help agreeing. Perhaps not buying live lobsters makes Whole Foods shoppers feel more pious, but what happens to the lobster fishermen who count on this insect for their living? Or the environmental degredation that results from flying in organic produce from the other side of the world?

It is actually really frustrating to realize that, in this world of plenty, where we can pretty much get anything to eat any time we want it, there are very few truly ethical eating options. Everything has trade-offs and it is hard to know what is better. Local or organic? Grass-fed beef or industrially-produced tofu? Farmed fish or canned fish? Nonfat or all natural? Raw milk or soy milk? Free-range chicken or kosher chicken? This one is actually pretty difficult for me. For religious reasons, I would choose kosher. I also like knowing that the animal was slaughtered in the most painless way possible. But I recently read a book about a kosher slaughterhouse that engages in illegal and unethical labor practices. So what is more important, the treatment of the animals or the treatment of the workers? And should I get in my car to drive to a national chain to buy the kosher chicken or walk up the street to the local butcher for the free-range chicken?

On the DR Show today, Diane talked to Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and to Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Both guests were talking about the health and politics of different food choices, and they had interesting points of agreement and contention. They agreed that the best things for us to eat are the least-processed, most real. Nina even said that we should only eat things that don't have labels. I tend to follow this advice, eating mostly fruits, vegetables, beans and grains from the bulk bins at the Co-op, and meat and fish from my local butcher and fishmonger. The only packaged food I do buy regularly is yogurt (and I buy a lot of it). Not only are unlabeled foods more natural (because they only have one ingredient, which makes labeling redundant and unnecessary), but they are also better for the environment because there is less packaging to be thrown away. Where Nina and Michael differed, however, was the degree to which animal products and particularly animal fats should figure in the human diet. Nina, an ex-vegan, focused on the benefits we get from such things as egg yolks, organ meats, and full-fat dairy products, while Michael focused on the dangers of saturated fats and the environmental impacts of animal farming. The point is, there are always trade-offs. Whole milk is less processed and thus more natural than nonfat, but it does have more saturated fat. Meat is a valuable source of protein and minerals, but wastes grain and water resources that could be distributed more equitably. Ultimately, it seems that there is no healthiest, holiest, most ethical way to eat. And that is what the concept of the food chain is all about.

Posted by eklanche at July 17, 2006 11:45 AM

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