Sustainability and Health

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Something Fishy

As an example, take wild-caught seafood. Overfishing had led to the collapse of many natural fisheries in the world's oceans, and yet there is still a demand for seafood, which is marketed (rightfully in many cases) as better for you that other protein options. When choosing between farmed and wild-caught, however, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. Unless you are getting your farmed fish from responsible farms (usually in the States), you can expect your dinner to have spent its short lift choking on antibiotic-soaked muck in crowded conditions. You can also expect this farm to have occasional breakouts in which the farmed fish invade the local, fragile ecosystem and wreak havoc. Clearly, farmed fish is not a very sustainable choice, at least when poorly managed.

The other option is to limit your farmed fish consumption to approved sustainable farms in the US. These are usually better managed to prevent breakouts and are often in sectioned off areas of natural bodies of water, allowing for cleaner production methods. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sustainbable Seafood Guide considers these types of farms more sustainble than ocean fishing, because they do not threaten natural populations. Tilapia and catish are among the most eco-friendly farmed fish. Sadly, they are also pretty poor in nutrients, and because they are fed a diet of corn and soybeans, tend to be high in bad fats. So even the sustainable option isn't the most optimally healthy.

It is possible that optimal health is not possible when eating sustainably. Maybe we have to accept mediocre health in order to get by without killing our planet.


Vegetables and fruits are another area where the distinction can get blurry. If you are a vegan, you're most likely healthier than your meat-eating counterparts (simply avoiding all the toxins that go into regular meat and replacing that with salads would do you a lot of good). On the other hand, you probably also eat some fairly exotic foods to replace the animal products, coconut being the most common. Does it make sense to adopt a diet that requires you get your fats from tropical locales, just to be healthy? You'd be doing better on the sustainability front compared to a carnivore who eats regular meat, but what about locally raised, grassfed meat?

We are told to eat lots of olive oil instead of butter, but olive oil comes from olives, which are Mediterranean. Eat seafood instead of red meat, because it's leaner, except that fisheries are collapsing. Nuts are good for you, but they are among the most heavily pesticide sprayed of all foods, making them a burden on the environments in which they are grown.

An all local diet would get around most of the sustainability issues, if you can handle seasonality in your fruits and veggies and know how to can and preserve food for the winter. But if you are a vegan, a purely local diet will be sorely lacking in protein and fats, unless you live in a tropical community.

Mix and Match

There is no one answer to all this. The best we can do is be aware of where our food comes from and what effects its origins might have on our health and the health of the environment. I personally sacrifice variety in my seafood choices by only eating a few varieties of wild-caught fish, because I value the health benefits; I eat sardines, but very little else (occasional Alaskan salmon, and pole-caught canned tuna). All my other seafood is sustainably farmed: shellfish and some other larger fish varieties. I just don't think the gastronomic value of red snapper justifies the ecological cost. The only red meat I eat is what we can shoot ourselves.

Veggies are most difficult, because I am not especially good at preservation (though I intend to learn eventually). In the summer, we get most of our vegetables from the farmers market. In the winter, I shop organic and do my best to shop local when I can.

This of course means that I spend a great deal of time thinking about my food and figuring out how and when to source it, but I feel that my culinary life and my nutrition benefit from this active involvement on my part. The exercise of simply thinking about the impact of your buying choices can help move you slowly in the direction of sustainable shopping and eating over time. Awareness is the first step to change, after all.

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