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Garrett Ahern is a biological sciences junior and Mustang News liberal columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the opinion or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
This past year has brought a good deal of change to my life, everything from exploring new hobbies to gaining new knowledge. At the top of this list are the changes I’ve made to the food I eat, changes that have by far made the largest impact on my life. Not too long ago, I ate whatever I craved without considering its origin. My former diet could be summed up to three things: meat, processed snacks and packaged fruits and vegetables. This unearthly diet of mine stemmed from a curiosity I developed as a freshman at Cal Poly.
Having grown up in a family in which my mother prepared everything I ate — most often from scratch — I took the value of good food for granted and believed the lack of junk food in my life meant I was “missing out.” By the time I started school at Cal Poly in Fall 2012, I was ready to eat all the processed food I could get my hands on. Cheez-Its, Hot Pockets, fruit snacks, you name it. The more of this food I ate, the farther down I went into the pit of convenience. By the time I moved off campus, the lack of fresh food in my diet had become clear.
Soon after moving into an apartment where I had to cook all my meals on my own, I realized how little of my fare was once alive and needed to be cooked. I began to think of ways to change this, not realizing that a return to the food of my childhood was all I needed. It took some time, but eventually, one by one, I began replacing my processed favorites with once-familiar whole foods.
In the beginning, the most challenging aspect of this change was the increased preparation time. Eventually, though, this perceived inconvenience morphed into daily routine, and my desire for the fresh, wholesome meals of my youth began to grow.
My plan for this piece was not to simply share the story of my dietary rebirth, but to shed light on the larger food-based issues it had me thinking about. I can speak from experience when I say many of us do not know where the food we eat comes from. Naturally, we enjoy the convenience and bargain of buying food from one place, often a supermarket or chain grocery store, and enjoying a wide array of options at a moment’s notice. When we choose to dig deeper, however, and discover the source of our food, we begin to realize the hidden costs such luxuries produce.
Modern industrialized agriculture, the answer we have demanded through our desire for convenient food at all times, is among the greatest contributors to climate change — emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains and airplanes combined. The problem and the solution lie not in the hands of the producers, but rather in those of the consumers; those of us buying the food produced en masse that wield the greatest power on the market.
The potential for positive change through revolutionizing what we eat is tremendous. As we steadily approach the middle of the century, when the world population is projected to reach 9 billion, the need for a change in the way we grow and consume our food is becoming greater each day. Luckily, we already know the threats we have created by our need for industrialized food production, so focusing on solutions to these problems should be our foremost effort.
Obstacles to overcoming agriculturally related environmental challenges have mostly stemmed from a longstanding dichotomy between those favoring modern mechanized agriculture and proponents of local and organic farms. However, there need not be such an either/or perspective. In fact, both of these views offer realistic solutions to obvious problems and through the balance of the approaches they take, a stable future for both hungry humans and a fragile planet is in reach.
We must begin by halting the growth of agriculture’s current footprint.
Historically, when new land was needed to grow food, it was made. This often was accomplished through destroying forests, grasslands and wetlands. Entire ecosystems, including the prairies of North America, have been eliminated by the need for mass agriculture. However, we can no longer afford to continue down this path. Few things surpass the environmental impact of clearing a forest for land and often times the land created does not go toward feeding the nearly 1 billion people on this planet who are currently malnourished. Instead, this land goes toward the production of more livestock to feed the growing demand for meat in developed countries.
Our next step is to produce more food on the land we already have. Practices brought about by the so-called “Green Revolution” increased crop yields throughout the developed world. It should be our focus to bridge the production gaps that persist in developing nations by introducing updated, yet sustainable, production practices to places still producing food with large yield inefficiencies.
After addressing production gaps abroad, we must focus our efforts back at home, where water has become increasingly scarce and its use has been slow to adapt. California in particular has represented the needed changes effectively. Many farmers in our golden state have converted fields once flooded by irrigation to fields using more conservative water practices, such as drip irrigation. If similarly arid regions follow suit, shortages in water supply will have a lessened impact on agricultural production elsewhere.
Lastly, consumers must drive changes in what foods are produced by reducing their consumption of red meats and limiting waste through overproduction and overconsumption. If we begin to demand the changes we wish to realize through revisions in our diet, the industries that feed us will be forced to change as well. By buying more local, in-season foods, we can alleviate some of the environmental pressure produced by long-distance food transport — not to mention fresh food tastes amazing.
We are living in a pivotal time in human history. We face unprecedented challenges to our food security and the preservation of Earth’s environment. We know what changes we must make, but we now must commit ourselves to their realization. The potential for positive change through re-discovering how you eat begins to be harnessed once you start thinking about the origin of what you eat.