Thoughts on Sustainability

brown cow in field

Sustainability has become a buzzword in the last few years. I started to really think about it when I started listening to the Sustainable Dish Podcast and when more and more news was coming out that beef was bad for the environment.

At that time, and now, I lived in Philadelphia. I walked to work, used reusable containers, composted, and did all the things I was “supposed” to. I even considered a biodegradable cat litter. But, in a 1000 square foot apartment, you need the least smelly cat litter option available, and it’s not the natural stuff. All in all, I did my best to live a sustainable life and I constantly thought about how I could improve.

There was about a week where I ate no meat at all. I ate almost vegan except for some cheese and half and half. I was considering adopting that lifestyle completely. That’s when I heard Diana Rogers explain so clearly that a meat-free life wasn’t necessarily the most sustainable life.

She has a film coming out about this so I don’t need to get into details here. The important thing to know is that when a cow is raised properly and fed grass, it can be a net negative for carbon. The cow interacts with the grass, the grass grows deeper roots, the soil is healthier and retains carbon. The story gets much more complicated than that, listen to Sustainable Dish to learn more.

Listening to Sustainable Dish made me think differently. I began to pick apart different products and wonder about how they were produced and whether they were in fact a sustainable choice.

Variables of Sustainability

None of this is backed with scientific data, it is a thought experiment. Sustainability contains so many variables that fully researching the below ideas would take my entire career.

Distance

If you were to compare an organic lemon to a non-organic lemon, the organic lemon is more sustainable. But, if the non-organic lemon was grown in your neighbor’s yard and the other came from 3,000 miles away, which is better? Probably the one that came from closer.

Processing

You’re choosing between an organic cookie compared to organic berries. They both traveled similar distances to your grocery store. Which is better? The one with less processing. This would probably still be true if the berries were conventional rather than organic.

Monocrops

Then there’s monocrops. A monocrop is a crop which is grown on its own and does not rotate with other crops. Think corn, soy, and wheat. Monocrops are bad for the environment. They deplete the soil, cause soil erosion, and being that they are grown alone, there is a lack of diversity. Monocrops also require pesticides and fertilizers. Fertilizer and pesticides are industries in and of themselves which require their own inputs.

So if you have a product that requires mass amounts of monocrops vs a product that doesn’t, it is obvious which one is “better” in terms of sustainability.

An easy comparison would be conventional breakfast cereal vs an organic one or one created on a small scale farm.

Highly Processed Monocrop Products

Compare a vegan cheese to cheddar cheese. Cheddar cheese requires a cow and the dairy must be processed. Vegan cheese requires a bit more input, let’s look at Daiya Shredded Cheddar Cheese. There are 16 ingredients, two of the first three ingredients are oils so this product is highly processed. The third ingredient is canola and/or safflower oil, both monocrops.

Sustainability is more complicated than vegans vs. non-vegans

The problem is that the vegan diet is often put on a pedestal for sustainability but just because a product is vegan does not mean it is more sustainable than a non-vegan product. My point is not “you should not be vegan” but rather if you wish to live a sustainable life, consider where the products that you purchase come from. Consider how they are produced, how they got to you, the packaging they are in, the number of ingredients, the list goes on.

Is eating lots of organic fruits and vegetables a more sustainable way to live than eating beyond burgers and vegan cheese? I would say, absolutely. Is eating beyond burgers and vegan cheese more sustainable than the real thing? Sorry but I don’t see why it would be.

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