Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

A happy expansion

Lots pile on the bandwagon for Earth Day 25.0



April 22 marks Earth Day every year. Hard to say whether it's because this year is the 25th anniversary, or simply that more and more people are twigging on to the fact that the planet we call home is in dire straits, but this year Earth Day has grown into what you might call Earth Week.

From Canada's great tenor and CBC radio's popular host, Ben Heppner marking the occasion with the healing power of music for a beleaguered planet on his show Backstage to Earth-friendly festivities through the coming weekend, thousands of people worldwide are jumping on the bandwagon for a healthier planet.

Earth Day was started by Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin. Ironically, given Vancouver's scary oil spill in English Bay, he was spurred to action by a huge spill from an oil rig near Santa Barbara in 1969. With up to 100,000 barrels of crude oil spilled over 10 days, it was the biggest such disaster in America at the time. Now, however, it's third in line after the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon debacles, the latter occurring five years ago this week and spilling an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil over nearly three months.

Senator Nelson's idea was to harness the anti-war movement that had focused around the war in Vietnam and transform it into action about environmental degradation, a topic pretty much absent from the political and social agenda at the time.

In 1970 the first Earth Day happened, eventually triggering two key environmental instruments in the U.S. that went on to influence policies worldwide: the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Surprisingly, it was Richard Nixon who earned the title of "greenest president in U.S. history" as they were enacted under his watch.

That's what happens with good ideas when their time has come — regardless of which political stripes are in power. Wish we could say the same about our current government in Ottawa — but never give up, never give in, and keep on doing what you can.

There are 7.3 billion of us trying to live on this planet along with all the other billions of life forms we share it with. U.N. predictions are for 40 per cent more people in the next 40 years or so, then, true to all biological trends, our numbers should start levelling off, then declining.

We are now a bigger force of nature than Nature herself, which is at the root of scientists proposing naming a new geological time period after us — the Anthropocene. "Time is divided by geologists according to marked shifts in Earth's state," says a new report in Nature, and there's no denying humans have markedly shifted Earth's state. The biggest debate now is when to start the time frame — at 1610, the start of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas?

We're also at the root of the so-called sixth extinction, neither of which is something to go down in cosmic history for, even if we have elevated celebrity to a religion.

So consider this: if only half of us made one small green action a part of day-to-day living it would really add up.

In the food zone, eating thoughtfully — whether that means eating organically, eating less, eating locally from small scale producers, being vegetarian, or just eating what's in season — are very good things, indeed.

In the industrial agriculture system that predominates our North American food supply, nobody allows fields to lie fallow and regenerate naturally like original prairie grasslands used to. For decades, oil-based fertilizers have been key to keeping the land productive. (Oil-based pesticides are another story...)

On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore one year's worth of lost fertility to a single acre of eroded land. According to one report, the fields in the state of Iowa alone need the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs each year just to keep producing their corn and grain, most of which goes to feed cattle.

But vegans shouldn't feel too smug. The energy needed to produce tofu and soya milk is about equal to that needed to produce grass-fed beef raised locally.

Overall, David Pimentel — a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and entomology at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University and an expert on food and energy — estimates that if everyone in the world ate the way Americans (and Canadians) eat, we would deplete all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. His detractors say he is off the mark by as much as 30 per cent. So make that 10 years.

If you eat meat, like we do, we can get by on much less of it. We can also pick our meats like we pick our pals — know something about where they're coming from. That usually adds up to them being ethically and sustainably raised, and I mean both meat and friends.

Go for variety. I like Bob at Red Mill's mantra for meatless Mondays. Bob's Red Mill is the company with that nerdy-looking packaging and really good, fresh whole grains inside. Yes, there really is a Bob, who has always run his company the way all companies should be run. Sustainably and ethically, which is inseparable from being sustainable.

He started it back in the hippie-ish times of a very young Earth Day — the mid-'70s. In 2010, when the company was valued at US$30 to $50 million, he transferred ownership of it to his employees through a stock plan.

If you want another persuasive reason to go meatless at least some days, more data is just in that a Mediterranean-style diet is good, good, good for preventing dementia. You can do a lot worse than a plate of tomatoes, olives and fish for dinner tonight — just make sure that fish is sustainably caught.

And go seasonal. Those tomatoes can be right from a B.C. hothouse. Watch the stick-on labels for accurate provenance. Even if the counter signs say Mexico or the U.S., you can find local produce in your grocery store now if you don't have a farmers' market yet in your neck of the woods.

On the other hand, if you insist on eating pears this time of year, or strawberries in December it means they were shipped from say, Argentina, which is 11,000 km. away.

So be thoughtful during this fruitful Earth Week, and see how far a little consideration can go. If you need a little inspiration, check out Heppner's choices (!/Backstage-with-Ben-Heppner) for the healing power of music.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist whose husband once interrupted Ben Heppner to check a frying pan left on the stove.