The Hidden Cost of Food
Updated: Feb 14, 2020
As I celebrated the arrival of the new year on December 31st, five men went from sleeping, to swimming, to dying in the Gulf of Alaska. The crab boat Scandies Rose sank that night. They were on the water to bring Alaskan king crab, queen crab, and snow crab to diners across the U.S. It’s a famously dangerous profession, as portrayed in the show Deadliest Catch.
I haven’t been able to get this event out of my mind. On the surface, it’s a tragedy, but I’m wondering if it says something deeper about us. Looking at the commercial Alaskan seafood fleet as a whole, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports 179 fatalities from 2000-2014; that’s about 12 fatalities a year to harvest Alaskan seafood. I’m mostly a vegetarian, but I’ve eaten Alaskan fish such as pollock (used in most fish sticks and McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish), halibut, and salmon. Did my desire to eat an “exotic” fish, in other words, a food not native to where I live, contribute to someone’s death?
The issue gets even more complex, when I consider the refrigeration and fuel for transporting Alaskan seafood products to me. In general, the seafood carbon footprint is lower than the footprint of other meats, up to the point of landing or processing. Ton-miles make a difference when choosing food. Perishable food is typically shipped by air, which has approximately triple the amount of emission per ton-mile as other forms of shipping. A greater shipping distance means more greenhouse gas emissions, which means a more negative impact on the climate that sustains our food systems. Climate change impacts in Alaska are greater than in any other U.S. state and are putting their seafood fisheries at risk of collapse. Native Alaskan communities, who are eating locally and living where they have for centuries, are hit the hardest.
On the surface, the New Year’s Eve tragedy and this discussion seems to be about Alaskan seafood. It’s not. Other foods have an equally complex story of their impact on people and the environment. Alaskan seafood is just one example of a larger issue. With the invention of refrigeration, we have been on a path of eating more food from places farther away from where we live. Refrigeration is a huge public health success, but it also has disconnected us from the sources of our food. We no longer know how the people or land are treated, nor do we know the full environmental impacts of the food.
In today’s world, we often consume food as a commodity. Many have forgotten that we depend on soil, air, water, plants, and animals to feed us. Kate Campbell, in her song Corn in a Box, reminds us that technology alone cannot grow the food we need. Our desire for more variety of foods from different and farther places is part of what’s causing the Sixth Mass Extinction, and in the process, we are risking destruction of the systems that feed us.
We’ve also forgotten that food consumption is about more than the pleasure of eating. Scriptures of many faith traditions talk about food as a Divine gift of sustenance and hospitality. Dr. Norman Wirzba has studied the importance of being thoughtful when we eat, and how doing so impacts the way we eat. For a deep theological dive into food, I recommend his book Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.
Eating thoughtfully doesn’t mean researching all the food I eat. It would be a full-time job to do so! Instead, I try to follow two guidelines.
(1) Choose locally and regionally produced foods. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is required on many items in the U.S., and some producers voluntarily add this labeling to other food items. Eating locally or regionally starts by looking for this label and knowing your region. For instance, where I live in Texas, some produce grown in Mexico is sourced much closer to me than products grown in the northern U.S. For meat without COOL labeling, ask the butcher about its source. If available, farmers’ markets are a good source of local foods.
(2) Choose fruits and vegetables that are in season. Eating seasonal food is connected to eating locally. For instance, in January, strawberries are being harvested to eat in Florida, but strawberries are not in season in Maine. This seasonal food guide is a tool for finding seasonal produce by month and state. In the northern U.S., there are few options for seasonal eating in winter. The energy used to commercially can or freeze a vegetable is about the same. Therefore, a general guideline for winter eating is to choose fruits and vegetables that have been shipped and stored the shortest with the least refrigeration. Cool storage (not frozen) fresh root vegetables grown in the Maine region will have a lower carbon footprint than frozen green beans or broccoli shipped from California. Shipping is generally the greatest source of emissions, so choose local, frozen produce over frozen or canned produce shipped a greater distance.
I'm finding these two guidelines are leading me to make different choices about what I eat. What will I have for lunch today? I haven't yet decided, but I now know the choice I make matters to more than just me.