Vegan month: the official verdict

My vegan challengehas been over for a few weeks now, but the usual chaos of school and being a reporter have prevented me from writing something about it. My apologies. Without further ado, here’s what I learned from a month of eating only plants. (Ok, plus a few food additive chemicals. No one’s perfect.)

The most surprising part of vegan month was that it was pretty damn easy. I’ve always heard vegans say that giving up eggs and dairy isn’t a huge deal, and I’d never really believed them. My twelve years of vegetarianism have largely been spent convincing die-hard meat eaters that it’s not that hard to go without. Still, something about the pervasiveness of dairy and eggs in our food had me convinced that going vegan is a challenge on an entirely different scale. Once I got in the swing of it, though, it wasn’t that hard. You do have to be more vigilant about what you eat, but I found that doing so is actually a pretty rewarding and healthful process.

One of the awesome things about being vegan was that it got me reading food labels in the grocery store. There were many times I picked up something to read the ingredients and double-check that it was vegan. Often, the item in question wouldn’t have any animal products, but would be full of oils, chemical additives or something else that made me pause and think. There were a lot of junk foods I ended up not buying, not because I couldn’t eat them, but because a closer look made me realize that I didn’t actually want to.

Another health benefit came from the challenge of finding vegan junk food. While it’s not that hard—potato chips and French fries are totally allowable—vegans are definitely pushed away from many of our worst offenders, like ice cream. I’ve noticed that gatherings with excessive amounts of junk food are a hallmark of both American culture and college life. Meetings, newspaper production nights and the like are often accompanied by a smorgasbord of pizzas, cookies, brownies and other sorts of sweet, fatty deliciousness. Most people eat a ton in these situations because they’re stressed and the food tastes good. Most people who pig out on junk food have eaten plenty of calories for the day—the junk food is a completely empty addition to the diet that isn’t nutritionally or calorically necessary. Because I couldn’t join in the pigging out, I ended up steering clear of a lot of excess food that I otherwise would have eaten. For me, this was the biggest benefit. I wish I could say that vegan month made me better about this, but since I’ve stopped being vegan, I’ve more or less returned to my usual cookie-inhaling ways.

Of course, not everything was perfect. My largest source of frustration with being vegan was that I became one of those people: obnoxious hipsters who go to the local sandwich place and stare pensively at the menu board for ten minutes before asking, “Do you guys have anything vegan?” I did this once and immediately hated myself so much that I swore off any further dining out, making an exception for Walla Walla’s relatively new vegan café, the Garden. I attended potluck brunches with friends and forgot to eat beforehand, an omission which left me lightheaded as I tried to walk home after a meal of orange juice and cantaloupe slices. I found myself turning down pastries offered to me by a visiting alum and realizing that there’s no way to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m vegan” without sounding pretentious. This, of course, is about cultural associations with veganism rather than the diet itself. But the further you remove yourself from what society considers “normal” eating, the more you open your choices up to scrutiny.

The fear of being judged as a pretentious hipster and the difficulty in finding places which served vegan food made me more proactive about cooking meals. I planned days in advance, making giant pots of soup on Sunday nights and planning to eat leftovers all week. I solidified my repertoire of a few solid dishes—lentil soup, red lentil curry and chili. (I did manage to adhere almost perfectly to my no-soy-based-fake-meats-or-dairy rule, though I snuck a bite of two of my vegan housemate’s tofu stir-fry one time.) I essentially cemented my understanding of “food” as “home-cooked meal”, which was a welcome transition after spending a semester abroad and having little control over what I ate.

It’s a little hard for me to pin down the concrete effects being vegan had on my body. I got a cold midway through the month—nothing unusual in the winter—but took over a week to recover, which is a long time for me. However, I can’t attribute this to being vegan. It could just as easily have been a particularly nasty virus, the fact that I was overworked and stressed, a lack of vitamin C in my diet or some combination of factors. I definitely lost weight during this month, but a lot of that could have just been me shedding the fat that grew out of the insane quantities of rice consumed in Ecuador. Chester (the temperamental adolescent dragon who lives in my stomach) was also noticeably happier during vegan month than he had been in a while, though I think a lot of that was just transitioning back to the U.S. Though since I’ve started paying attention more to what sets him off, I’m starting to think I may be mildly lactose intolerant.

I didn’t feel tired or lacking in energy during vegan month, though I did find myself craving food more, especially sweets. I’ve heard that this is pretty common, and that not feeling “full” leads vegans to snack a lot. I think this could have been managed perfectly fine if I’d decided to do this for longer and invest the time in monitoring my nutrients, but since it was only a month, I figured I wouldn’t kill myself if I just played it by ear.

Ultimately, I’m really glad I decided to try being vegan. I came in thinking I’d be miserable, and I found out that veganism is pretty damn legit. My usual rants about individual choice being an ineffective weapon for change still apply, but I think veganism actually can have health benefits, in the sense that it reduces junk food and fat consumption. This is something that could also be accomplished with good self-control, incidentally, but I personally find it harder to stick to rules I made up (don’t eat junk food) as opposed to rules that are part of a larger thing (be vegan). I’ve noticed a few permanent changes in my eating habits since then. I’ve stopped eating so much cheese, and my consumption of animal-product based meals has definitely declined. I’ve renewed my appreciation for lentils and beans as protein sources, and stopped making yogurt my default breakfast. I’m definitely eating less dairy overall and being more conscientious about what I do eat.

My next food challenge is going to be a month without processed foods or added sugar. I’m waiting until the summer, when I have the full bounty of summer harvest at my disposal, and my goal is going to be to eat almost entirely local stuff I buy at the Walla Walla Farmer’s Market. I think that my biggest health problem is my addiction to junk food, and while vegan month flirted with addressing it, real food month will hit it head on. I’m excited to report back.


Food showdown, part one: the vegan challenge

I’m headed back to Whitman tomorrow, and as soon as I get there, I’ll be starting my first food challenge for the year: one month being vegan.

I’ve been a vegetarian (or pescatarian, more accurately) for most of the last twelve years, with a brief hiatus this past year to travel (Ghana and Ecuador are not veggie-friendly countries) and explore the world of local, grass-fed beef (which is probably a better choice than processed soy in the long run). Being a vegetarian is incredibly easy for me—while I like the taste of meat, it’s not something I crave or feel that I need to be healthy. I get plenty of iron and protein from other sources, and I pretty much subsist on beans, lentils, yogurt and cheese. (I try to steer clear of soy because of its role in deforesting the Amazon, the way it’s usually grown in monocultures and the way it’s processed using a neurotoxin which can cause severe health problems in workers. But sometimes, you need to have pho or pad Thai.)

Being vegan is a whole different ballgame. I love cheese. It’s like, my favorite food. I recognize that being as outraged as I am by factory farming while conveniently ignoring where my cheese and yogurt come from is hypocritical, and I’ve tried to get better about that in the past year. While I’ll eat cheese when it’s served to me, I try to only buy happy local cheese when I’m in charge of my own food. But the majority of the animal products I do eat come from the same factory farmed sources I’m always complaining about.

I’ve gone into detail about my food philosophy a million times on this blog, but quick recap: I don’t think being vegan is particularly healthy for most people, I think framing veganism as the solution to factory farming is really disingenuous and alienating, I think the ability to be vegetarian or vegan is often a function of privilege (knowledge, cooking facilities, time, money) and I don’t think individual choices are a valid solution to anyenvironmental problems, especially not something as complicated as the industrial food juggernaut. BUT, I’m also a person who thinks and talks about food and food politics a lot, and if that’s a thing I’m going to be doing for my life, I think I should at least know what it’s like to actually be vegan. I figure a month is long enough that I’ll get an idea what it’s like and won’t just spend the entire time counting down to my next quesadilla, but short enough that I can stick it out without being miserable or unhealthy if it doesn’t agree with my body.

I’m interested in exploring how I feel during this month, especially since I’m following it with a no processed foods and no added sugar month (and then going back to being a regular pescatarian). As many of you know, I have an adolescent dragon named Chester who lives in my stomach and likes to throw temper tantrums and/or loud parties. So anything which makes his life a little easier works out well for me too. I’m going to be recording general impressions (do I feel healthy? full? hungry? craving certain foods? well-nourished?), as well as weight (I’m guessing I might lose weight, but probably not much, given that Tim’s Cascade Chips are vegan), energy levels and anything else different that I notice. My hope is that I’ll use this month to explore new recipes and come out of it with some healthier and more conscious eating habits. Stay tuned…

Local isn’t about the carbon footprint

I just posted my problems with the local movement, namely that a focus on choosing local foods can ignore the fact that the same crops have very different environmental impacts when grown in different places. That said, I’m a huge believer in eating locally. I’ve heard some criticisms of the local food movement recently that have bugged me because they seem incomplete, so I want to address them.
The most common criticism of local eating that pops up on various blogs has to do with carbon emissions. Some people claim, as the Freakonomics blog crew did a while ago, that the efficiencies of large-scale agriculture can mean that stuff shipped in from really far away actually has a smaller carbon footprint than local food. They tell you to picture one large steamship or cargo plane compared with dozens of inefficient diesel pickups driven by individual farmers.
The other carbon footprint argument is made by people comparing the transportation footprint of food to the production footprint of meat. Because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases released by animals, particularly cattle, eating meat and dairy gives you a much bigger carbon footprint than eating food shipped halfway across the world to your plate. Sometimes, this argument ends with the claim that if we really care about saving the world and reducing our impact, we should go vegetarian or vegan instead of worrying about local food.
I have two big problems with the carbon footprint argument. One: it’s not uniformly accurate. The generalizations that are relied on to make claims like, “x produces more carbon emissions than y” mean that those statements have to be taken with a grain of salt. The carbon footprint of a piece of food depends on literally thousands of factors—what it is, where it was grown or raised, where the water to irrigate it came from, how power is generated in the area it’s grown, how it was shipped and how it was packaged, just to name a few. Cows can be managed in such a way that they increase the organic content of soil, meaning the soil sequesters carbon and the beef being produced has a greatly reduced or negative footprint. I’m willing to concede that most of the time this isn’t the case, but to generalize about “the carbon footprint of beef” ignores the reality of farmers who are working hard to do it right. There’s simply no accurate way to know the exact footprint of anything, especially if you don’t know the person who produced it.
Secondly, these arguments are assuming that the only point of eating local is reducing your carbon footprint. A lot of foodies care about that, but most of us have other reasons we want to eat locally too. I personally don’t care much about my individual carbon footprint—I’m much more worried about the Keystone XL pipeline and stopping coal plants from being built than agonizing over how many cow farts it takes to destroy the planet. For me, local foods are about community. Buying directly from farmers keeps money in my area, where it has a greater multiplier effect. It supports hardworking average people, rather than shareholders and executives at big supermarkets. It allows me to have the awesome experience of strolling through the farmers’ market with no shopping list and buying weird-looking vegetables on impulse because the farmer who grew it was right there and told me how she cooks it at home.
Local foods are a function of privilege and wealth, and they’re yet another indicator of the sad fact that low-income people are much less likely to have access (geographically and financially) to healthy, fresh food, much less the time and knowledge required to cook it. As far as I’m concerned, this is the biggest problem with the local food movement. Choosing local can’t be called a choice if most people aren’t in a position to make it.
Ultimately, though, we need local. If we’re going to live on this planet well into the future, we’re going to have to do a better job of building resilient communities where members support each other. We’re going to have to grow more food closer to where we eat it and pay better attention to taking care of our soil and water. Local isn’t about carbon footprints. It’s much, much bigger than that. It’s about nothing less than reshaping our entire relationship to food.
Sometimes, this sounds like a daunting task to me. But then I remember that the current food infrastructure hasn’t been in place for very long. My great grandma knew how to can food. My grandma remembers what real tomatoes taste like and doesn’t want to buy the ones in the supermarket because she says they’re just not the same. Another world is possible, and its close relatives have existed in living memory. Industrial food on this scale is a post-World War II invention, and the seeds of resistance began sprouting a few decades ago, when organic food became a thing. I spent much of my time hopelessly depressed, lamenting the state of the world and politics and social injustice. But food is one thing that leaves me smiling. We’re up against the biggest, most entrenched special interests in the history of civilization. But time, dedication and ecology are on our side. It’s going to be hard, but we’ll get there. And when we do, there won’t be bloggers asking questions about whether local food makes sense, because local will be the new normal.

Beyond local

Note: This is a column I wrote for the Pioneer last fall while I was on Whitman’s Semester in the West program. The column can also be found on the Pioneer website. I’m planning to post in the next few days about some common reasons people argue against local food and why they’re missing the point, but I thought it would be relevant to post my own critique of the local idea, as well some thoughts on the shortcomings of food package labels.

The importance of eating local foods has been a prominent theme in the environmental movement for the past few years. Eating local makes sense for many reasons—buying close to home is a way to connect people to the farmers who grow their food, and a shorter transportation distance generally means fewer carbon emissions. As we develop local food systems, however, it is critical to remember that not all crops are created equal.
Consider California. About half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown here, mostly in irrigated valleys which rely on the importation of water. In Southern California, much of this water comes from the Colorado River, which has been dammed dozens of times to provide cheap water for the desert farms and metropolises of the American West. California has the largest share of the Colorado’s water, and it uses about 80% of what it takes to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, the Colorado is overallocated—shared between seven states and Mexico, depended on to feed the growth of Las Vegas and Phoenix and subject to increased water loss as climate change warms the West. With water shortages looming on the horizon, California’s farmers may move to mining groundwater, pumping it from underground aquifers at rates that will take centuries to replenish.
A concerned environmentalist living in Los Angeles could easily find local produce to eat. Go to the supermarket, and you’ll find California-grown avocadoes, tomatoes, oranges, carrots and artichokes. But how sustainable is it to eat vegetables grown in a semi-desert with water pumped to them from hundreds of miles away? If local eating requires taking so much water from the Colorado that its waters have failed to reach the ocean for the last three decades, what are we accomplishing?
This is not to say that local foods aren’t a worthwhile goal. On the contrary, some degree of local food production is essential for solving climate change. But locovores need to do more than look at the distance their food has traveled to get to their plate. The same food produced in two different climates can have dramatically different environmental effects. Cattle grazed on Virginia pastures, where it rains, are good for the land and can easily be rotated between pastures to allow grasses to regrow. Cattle grazed in the desert canyonlands of Utah trample biotic soil crusts, increase soil erosion and allow non-native plants to take over the ecosystem. If you live in Utah and want to eat beef, getting it from Virginia might be the more sustainable choice.
Environmentalists are used to screening food by labels. If something is organic, local, grass-fed or all-natural, it’s automatically assumed to be better for our health and the Earth. If we want to succeed in building a more sustainable food system, we need to move beyond these labels and look at the actual impacts our food has on the land it’s grown on. If a crop can be grown in the area where you live without pumping a river dry, building a dam to divert subsidized irrigation water or permanently depleting the soil of its nutrients, it’s a good candidate for sustainability. If not, get it from somewhere that can grow it sustainably or go without it.
Obviously, this approach is not universally applicable—many crops are unsustainable no matter where they are grown, and there isn’t enough choice or transparency in our food system to answer all of these questions. Being in a place to consider your food choices this carefully is a function of education, environmental awareness and affluence, all of which are privileges many people don’t share. But to the extent it’s possible, everyone who cares about the health of the planet needs to ask difficult questions when they to go the store or sit down for dinner. Looking at the package will never tell you everything you need to know about your food. Talk to the farmer, learn what grows well where you live and pay attention to what you’re supporting when you buy food. Our existence on this planet depends on its ability to produce food for us. We need to start taking better care of it.

Sustainable agricultural development

Over the past two weeks, I’ve read a bunch of articles written by African agricultural experts, and talked to government officials and NGO representatives about the best way to develop Ghana’s agricultural sector. Most of the experts seem to agree about a few basic points, namely that Ghanaian agriculture suffers from low productivity due to low soil fertility and farmers using sub-optimal practices and insufficient inputs for their crops. Common problems include a lack of irrigation (which restricts growing to the rainy season), the small/inefficient size of farms (85-90% of cultivated land is on farms of two hectares or less), lack of fertilizer and pesticide use, and farmers using saved seeds rather than hybrid, improved varieties. (Improved seeds, incidentally, are not the same thing as genetically modified seeds. They’re just seeds bred for certain climatic conditions; GM seeds are effectively illegal in Ghana due to government regulations and the amount of time it takes to get new seeds approved by the government.)

With problems defined this way, most agricultural strategy I’ve come across, both from the Ghanaian government and assorted NGOs, seems to focus on building a more industrial agricultural system. Publications point out that the vast majority of Africa’s farmers are subsistence level (1% of the US population farms, and these farmers grow a surplus of food; meanwhile, 70ish% of Ghanaians farm and the country still imports staples like rice). As far as I can tell, this is seen as a bad thing. Most strategies for agricultural development suggest that the way forward involves larger farms, fewer farmers, more efficient distribution, irrigation, increased fertilizer use and improved seed varieties.

Certainly, the desire to increase agricultural productivity makes sense. The world population continues to grow, and more and more people are thinking, talking and writing about the coming food crisis and what it will mean. The world needs to grow enough to feed everyone who’s here, plus the 3 billion people who are coming by the end of the century. Inequality of distribution is a huge part of the picture, as are the inefficiencies of meat production (industrial/factory farmed animals, which account for virtually all meat production, are fed about nine calories of soy or corn for every calorie of their meat we end up eating).

I’m not convinced, though, that the agricultural strategy being pursued by the international development community is the best way to do this. Some inefficiencies in Ghanaian agriculture are well worth addressing: farmers could make better use of organic fertilizers if they were priced more affordably and distributed more efficiently, for example. But the tone of the policy documents I’ve read seems to suggest that Ghana (along with other African countries) needs to modernize quickly and move people away from farming if it wants to lift its people out of poverty. This isn’t a bad idea in moderation, but if you take it to its logical conclusion, you’re going to end up with a food system like the US. Which, to my mind, is not a good thing.

American agriculture is incredibly efficient. It’s very good at getting cheap food to people, and has allowed us to grow into a country where poor people are often obese. Many American diets are deficient in critical nutrients, but almost all have enough calories to keep people from starving.

This is the success story that the architects of American agricultural policy like to tell, but it comes with a lot of external costs which we’re becoming increasingly familiar with. E.coli, bird flu, cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, animal torture, substandard agricultural working conditions and identical tomatoes which can be shipped across the country but don’t taste like anything—these are all costs we pay for cheap food. We don’t pay consensually, or often knowingly, but we do pay, sooner or later.

There’s a huge debate about whether or not cheap food is worth it. Industry and government reps have been known to defend the system, saying that these risks are exaggerated and the alternative—starving masses—is worse. I believe we have other choices, and there’s been a good amount of research showing that organic farming techniques can produce as much or more food than their industrial counterparts. But ultimately, it’s a pointless debate to have. Cheap food is built on oil. Agricultural chemicals are petroleum- based, synthetic fertilizers require oil to produce, and huge transport distances are unsustainable in a world with finite oil reserves. There’s debate about how long we have left, but we’re using up a finite resource, which means we’re going to run out eventually. And when we get close—when oil prices go up, and instead of spiking, they keep climbing—food is going to be expensive. This has already started to happen around the world, and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.

So in a world of uncertainty, with rising food prices, it makes sense to grow more food. But it also makes sense to be cautious, to build models that are resilient and sustainable in addition to being high-yielding. For Ghana, it will probably mean improved seeds, better irrigation technologies, more organic fertilizer and fewer farmers. But that doesn’t have to mean emulating the US’s industrial system. It doesn’t have to mean growing cash crops for export, like cocoa, at the expense of crops which are consumed locally. Right now, I can walk two blocks from the Burro office to the Koforidua market and buy pineapples, cassava, yam, tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, oranges, limes, lemons, eggs, peppers, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and eggplant, all of it grown locally by small farmers. You’d be hard-pressed to find this much local variety in any American supermarket, even in California. I believe that Ghana, and other developing countries, will be able to figure out a way to meet the challenges facing their agricultural producers. But I also hope that the changes required won’t replace the Koforidua market with something that looks like Wal-Mart or Safeway.

Agricultural chemicals, population and environmental justice

I’ve been researching the agricultural inputs market in Ghana for my internship, and I’ve realized just how easy it is to buy agricultural chemicals here. Within a block of the Burro offices are at least two shops selling a variety of pesticides—everything from organochlorate insecticides, which are broad-spectrum neurotoxins, to atrazine, a common herbicide which has been linked to birth defects (see the excellent New York Times story here for more information). You can even buy glyphosate, which is the active chemical in Roundup, Monsanto’s famous broad-spectrum herbicide that kills anything with green leaves. Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired a few years ago, meaning that any company can manufacture glyphosate herbicides. So if you want a liter of Roundup in Ghana, all you need is $4 and the ability to walk around the corner.

Virtually every farmer in Ghana uses these broad-spectrum herbicides on their fields, and as far as I can tell, there is no such thing as organic produce here (at least not in the Koforidua market).There are sometimes adverse health effects experienced by people applying these chemicals, though more with insecticides than herbicides. There’s also a long history of associated environmental problems with agricultural chemicals (see: Silent Spring and the Bhopal chemical plant disaster).

The chemical issue, to me, is less an example of the wealth-environment paradox (see last post), and more an example of environmental injustice. Ag chemical exposure, as I understand it, it pretty directly linked to wealth around the world. It’s not like American farms don’t use these chemicals, it’s just that farmers can pay people (who usually happen to be low income people of color) to apply the neurotoxins for them. Or it’s done by machine. On the other side of the equation, well-off people live in places where organic produce exists and can afford to buy it; the rest of the world gets a healthy dose of toxic chemicals along with their fruit.

So why do farmers use these chemicals? In short, because they tend to increase output. Large, industrial farms in the US tell us that without them, we couldn’t feed the world. (“If everyone ate organic, you’d have a few healthy people and a lot of dead people” is what a Walla Walla wheat farmer told us on an environmental studies class trip last spring.) Small, Ghanaian farmers need that increased output to feed their families, and all the data in the world about neurotoxicity and birth defects won’t change that reality. In the long run, I believe industrial agriculture will collapse. Eventually, we’re going to run out of oil to make these chemicals with, our soil will run out of nutrients, our farmland will salinize and turn to desert, and we won’t have cheap, government-subsidized water to irrigate California.

But in the short run, I think they’re right. How could grass-fed, local meat ever replace the perverse efficiency of a factory farm (assuming people keep eating meat at current and growing rates, which seems like a pretty healthy assumption)? How could we produce enough to feed the world on small-scale local farms?

I’ve read so many environmentalist laments against the toxicity of agricultural chemicals, most recently by Sandra Steingraber in Orion. Many of them seem to assume that if we knew what these chemicals were doing to our soil, water and bodies, we would stop using them. But what if that’s not true?

As I’ve come to realize just how toxic civilization is (and I mean that literally: modern civilization is largely sustained by a variety of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals), I’ve also started thinking that the logic underlying environmentalist appeals might not hold water. Sure, the world responded to Silent Spring by largely banning DDT. But if we laid out chemicals on a balance sheet—you get enough food to (theoretically) feed the world, a variety of convenient consumer products, electronics (one of the most toxic manufacturing processes on earth) and cars, and for all this, you run the risk of getting cancer, having a child born with birth defects or experiencing lead poisoning—would we choose to go without? Increasingly, I don’t think so. Would you give up the Internet if it meant your cancer risk went to zero? What about cars, or cheap food?

Of course, I’m oversimplifying. It’s possible we could retain some of the benefits of technology without so much disease and destruction. But I don’t think it’s likely, especially in the case of agriculture. Insecticides are a perfect example. By definition, they’re designed to kill living animals, and they’re designed to work on a variety of different organisms. It’s not a question of whether these chemicals could affect humans; it’s a question of at what dosage, or at what level of accumulation?

We’re at seven billion, headed to nine in the next few decades. Do we want people to starve, or do we want them to get cancer? Because the classic refrain—that most, if not all environmental problems stem from overpopulation—is not going to make those people go away.

If I could redesign the world from scratch, I have a decent idea of what it would look like. But given what we have now, I have no idea how to proceed. I want to know what chemicals are doing, and I want them regulated. I want environmental justice—if we’re willing to pay the price for civilization, that price should be evenly distributed regardless of gender, race, income level or country of birth. I’m aware that this might be impossible, and that it’s the very people least likely to have any of civilizations “benefits” (laptops, cars, or even access to medical care) who are most likely to experience its ill effects. I know that we overproduce food in the US, and that we’re eating all the wrong things, and I’m hoping that if we fix that, we’ll be able to find a better food system in the process. I know that I have no right to tell Ghanaian farmers what chemicals they should or shouldn’t use, but I want to make a world where they don’t need to use them and no one needs to starve because of it.

Grazing: learning to see

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah
context: During this week, we were working with Mary O’Brien, an ecologist with the Grand Canyon Trust. Mary was one of several ecologists we met who believed that cattle grazing on Western public lands was an environmental nightmare and is working to reduce the amount of land that’s grazed. Today, we went out on an actual grazing allotment to count cows and see what the land looked like.
I think today, I get it. I’ve seen Suzanne cry and Mary rant about riparian habitat and grazing. I’ve seen cows and incised channels. But today, wandering across a few miles of moonscape covered in hoof marks and cowpies, I saw a bit of what they see. The fence, built perhaps to keep cows away from part of the stream and the juniper bushes, was in decent shape, but the cows had access to the stream on both sides because they’d managed to erode a path down into the gully. The water was muddy and trampled to death.
I’m still having trouble being angry about it. Maybe because it’s hard to pinpoint a source. I don’t fault the individual rancher trying to make a living, though I have no sympathy for absentee billionaires or giant corporations who run cattle. Cows are far too docile and placid to be the objects of anger. And the political and bureaucratic clusterfuck seems difficult to pin on any particular person, law or agency. It’s a beast of its own, independent of individual human desires, although a product of them.
But I know it needs to change. I’m not as strident as Mary, though I feel the truth in her statement that some jobs or lifestyles cannot be justified because the cost to the earth is too high. I know absolutely that a rancher should be able to graze fewer cattle than an allotment allows for and should be able to sell it for conservations purposes if both parties are willing. But beyond that, it’s so hard to untangle. I worry about imperialism and outsourcing of negative consequences. If we eliminate the 2-3% of beef grazed on public lands here (and 2-3% of American beef is still a ton of cows), demand won’t follow the drop in supply. So we’ll import from Argentina or Brazil and eat cows with a huge carbon footprint grazed on pasture that used to be Amazonian rainforest before it was clearcut. We’ll have our land back and some smug satisfaction or feeling of grand victory, but I worry we’ll just be outsourcing the problem. So what, ethically, should I be eating? If I add a no-public-grazing clause to my vegetarian meat-eating ethics, I might as well just go back to no meat at all. I want to be healthy, which means no more tofu if I can help it, and I’m not the kind of girl who can live off of lentils. I love dairy, but that’s a curtain I’ve barely started to pull back, and I know I won’t like what I find. Someday, I want a house in Seattle with a backyard big enough for chickens and a goat. But until then, I still think I’m doing better eating cheese, raw milk and Thundering Hooves beef.