Archive for January 14th, 2019

On Food Choices, part 1: the right road lost

January 14, 2019

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. (Dante)

Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. (Christopher Hitchens)

I agree with Hitch’s sentiment but the happiness part doesn’t necessarily follow from thinking for yourself. It’s not guaranteed to make relationships with those around you any smoother either. My transition away from a religious worldview in the 90s didn’t lead to an increase in happiness, just to a more healthy relationship with reality.

It’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime and navigating the maze of food choices is not simple.

I’ve been trying to write about this for months, mostly unsuccessfully, because it’s so big and because what I’ve been working through is disruptive to those I care about.

I know I can be annoying once I start going down rabbit holes, worse when a topic is not free of controversy. Those close to me and in the workplace could vouch for that. Karen relates to commentary about the “species” that is the subject of this short amusing video:

Rather than trying to say everything all at once, I eventually realised that it made sense to write a sequence of more digestible (pun not intended) parts. This one will serve as an introduction.

As far as I can see, there are four main aspects to consider when it comes to food choices:

  1. The desires and health of a human individual.
  2. The food producer’s livelihood.
  3. The impact upon the environment.
  4. The welfare of animals.

The desires and health of a human individual

Without individual health nothing much else matters to us, so the first item on the list is clearly of crucial importance.

I’ll return to this in part 2.

I’ve generally been the kind of person who is happy to have a meal without, well, making a meal out of it. I try not to spend much time preparing or eating food.

But the thing is, I like the taste of beef, bacon, ham, fish, turkey, chicken, cheese, milk, and other foods I’ve spent half a century eating.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between wants or likes, and needs.

Desires have a subjective importance that should be weighed against other factors rather than being accepted without question. They include purely personal preferences as well as cultural and religious traditions.

The food producer’s livelihood

Fair Trade coffee is an example of the second aspect, e.g. poor farmers receiving fair compensation for the coffee beans they’ve grown.

Karen and I used to buy instant coffee in large bags from Oxfam shops. We still try to buy Fair Trade instant coffee although it’s less common in supermarkets than would be hoped. But Fair Trade is about more than income, such as freeing people from slavery (unbelievably still a thing in the 21st century), allowing freedom of association to form unions, and providing income for education to improve the lot of future generations.

Two more examples are: dairy farmers getting a fair price for the milk their cows produce and fishermen getting enough of a share of fish stock quota to make a living.

It’s worth noting that securing a food producer’s livelihood is a different matter from the long-term sustainability of the produce.

The impact upon the environment

The third and fourth aspects go beyond the world of people though, of what we need, want or like.

Motivated by environmental concerns, as a family we have have reduced our consumption of meat over the last few years. On resource usage and emissions grounds, beef and lamb are less sustainable than pigs, chicken, or fish (see less meat less heat). Beef and lamb are obvious first targets, low hanging fruit, so to speak.

The Australian Climate Council had this to say in 2017 (my italics):

The livestock sector is responsible for a massive 15% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. This makes global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock higher than all emissions from road, rail, air and marine transport combined.

Cattle, raised for beef, milk and other outputs such as manure, make up 65% of greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector. One of the primary reasons for this statistic is cow ‘burps’, which contain methane produced during digestion … These ‘burps’ are particularly problematic in the fight against climate change, as methane is about 28 times more powerful in terms of its potential to cause global warming than carbon dioxide.

The infographic in this Climate Council report shows that a whopping 51% of Australian land use is for livestock grazing:

Australian Livestock Infographic (source: Climate Council)

I came across this video of Bill Nye recently musing over a question from a young caller on the theme of climate change and emissions from cattle, in his usual straightforward way:

We tend to hear less about the impact of methane as a greenhouse gas and more about carbon dioxide. Is that perhaps because of the livestock link? Profit and tradition? As a comparable aside, I’ve often thought that fixing the hole in the ozone layer was less socially challenging because unlike minimising the effects of climate change, it didn’t require us to give up as much profit or tradition, just find a replacement for CFCs in a manageably small number of products.

Speaking of tradition (coffee in the morning!), several months ago I switched to soy cappuccinos, again for sustainability reasons, because dairy milk requires cattle, presenting similar resource usage (land, water, food) and emissions problems as for beef production.

Later, I started using soy milk in cereal and drinking soy on its own. At first I thought I would never like (that word again) the taste. I had spent decades drinking cow’s milk. It didn’t take long to adapt though and now I actually prefer it.


I didn’t like beer much to begin with either! Both violated the principle of least surprise: they didn’t taste like I expected them to.

As an aside, around the same time as switching to soy milk, I moved to a “keep cup” at work that Karen had bought for me, because disposable coffee cups are a huge landfill problem. Before that I was throwing away a disposable cup every day! Of course, as a society, we generate all manner of rubbish and support wasteful, inefficient packaging of the goods that we purchase, but coffee cups are very high on the list as it turns out.

In any case, if we just consider resource usage, sustainability and climate change alone, perpetuating a demand for livestock based food is arguably questionable, especially as the human population continues its exponential growth.

This short video from The Economist asks whether there is a case for the future of food to be plant-based on such grounds:

The welfare of animals

Motivated by the fourth aspect, Karen and I have been choosing free range eggs for quite awhile now with the help of apps like CluckAR. Determining what constitutes free range and what doesn’t can be tricky though. As we’ve discovered, the number of birds and the conditions under which they are kept vary wildly under the “free range” banner.

But why stop at the ethical treatment of egg laying hens?

It would also seem to be a reasonable thing to say, if understated and obvious, that in general, any reduction of the demand for meat is a good thing for those animals not consumed.

Further discussion of animal welfare is too much for the current post.

Before going down that particular rabbit hole in part 3, I want to return to the question of the health of a human individual.

Part 2: but is it healthy?