Are you a cynical consumer? If there’s one thought an advertising college course will hammer into you, it’s that today’s consumers are far less trusting than ever before. And yet, we are all constantly misinformed, and only sometimes are we actually perplexed at the vast extent of our unawareness. Case in point: on the subject of diets and doctors, a couple of bloggers (links at the end of the post), piggybacking off of each other, strongly and separately made this point– people don’t really understand what they should and shouldn’t eat because apparent authorities on food research frustratingly mislead the public, and we’re left with a huge question mark about what should be done. The articles confront the skepticism, but don’t necessarily inquire much more.
If you are a cynical consumer, distrust of experts and confounding stories might sometimes give way to giving up the search for food truth. There may not be a clear answer, but that doesn’t mean that thinking and reading about it is a waste of time, especially when we’re talking about the building blocks of your body. A skeptical consumer can’t arrive at a defendable conclusion if they simply leave the matter up to opinion; they have to employ what psychology calls “reflective judgement,” a way of thinking where you “evaluate and integrate evidence, relate that evidence to a theory or opinion, and reach a conclusion that can be defended a reasonable or plausible, while standing ready to reassess that conclusion in the face of new information”. In the 90’s, there was actually a research study on how people employ reflective judgement in their everyday lives, and here’s how one subject, a college-student came to his conclusions about food safety:
Interviewer: When people differ about matters such as [if chemicals in foods are safe], is it the case that one opinion is right and one is wrong?
Student: No. I think it just depends on how you feel personally because people make their decisions based upon how they feel and what research they’ve seen. So what one person thinks is right, another person might think is wrong… If feel that chemicals cause cancer and you feel that food is unsafe without it, your opinion might be right to you and my opinion is right to me.
Invitation by Psychology, a textbook, used the above dialogue as an example of the quasi-reflective stage of cognition, the stage where people “know that there are alternative viewpoints, but they seem to think that because knowledge is uncertain, any judgment about the evidence is purely subjective.” You don’t have to settle on quasi-reflective thoughts about “food rules.” With a mind open to weighing differing evidence and conflicting perspectives, you’re more likely to hone in on the elusive answer to the deep question of what to eat.
There are countless relevant frameworks from which to judge our eating habits. Almost any conversations about “society” that I can think of could easily address food. The fact there are more prisoners inmates than farmers in the US. Population explosion. Mental health. As an environmentalist, I often consider a quote by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “Eating is an ecological act.” The impact of your food choices can be felt around the world. Below, I present two global examples of the link between food and the environment.
1990– Indonesia. The developed world, in pursuit of cheap trans-fat free snacks, starting demanding more of a particular commodity. They found it inexpensive and versatile, and after all, it would bring substantial revenue to Southeast Asia. Sales took off and never looked back. Every year since, more fruits and more kernels from the Elaeis guineensis plant are boiled, stripped of their stalk, neutralized, bleached, deodorized, and then manipulated dozens of times until, finally… the oils end up baked into nearly any sweet food in nearly any of the world’s donut stands, markets, and pattiseries. As of the beginning of the current decade, palm oil, 86% of which is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, makes up 36% of all vegetable oil sales, and is one of ten items sold at supermarkets. An incredibly common household item with no trends of abatement, palm oil is also increasingly found itself on the lips of environmentalist groups exposing the profound damages its production causes. 11,586,151.7339 football fields-worth of Indonesia that once was biologically diverse rainforest atop carbon-rich soil has been chopped, (decreasing the much-needed availability of carbon sinks), burnt (releasing greenhouse gases), and intentionally replaced with oil palms, and not much else. The rich soil that once nurtured creatures as human as the orangutan, as mysterious as the hairy-nosed otter, and as elegant as the Sumatran tiger has become their graveyard. One 2008 study observed that of all the species found in untouched Indonesian rainforests, about 15% could be found in palm oil fields. The species most capable of comfortably inhabiting these palm monocultures are the ones that are already widespread and common, such as rats.
2003–Great Barrier Reef. Ecologist David Bellwood penned an alarming statistic about one of the world’s most pristine coral reefs. Half of the reef sites he visited and sampled had less than 10% of the coral cover they contained in the 60’s. It’s normal for the coral’s health to fluctuate; hungry Crown-of-Thorn Starfish and various diseases overtake coral occasionally, but the reef soon recuperates. Except for the past few decades. Bellwood’s study noted that “inputs of sediment and nutrients from land have increased fourfold since European settlement.” In the ocean, these terrestrial nutrients, (things like nitrogen and phosphorus) travel up the food chain and feed the starfish, facilitating their reef takeover. If you follow the nutrient path upstream you’ll soon get to the farms of northeast Australia. Here, at some point, workers wash their mill of the extra plant bits and sludge that accumulated over the year. Others load the barren topsoil with fertilizer to compensate for the constant decline in soil richness. Fertilizer, sludge, and extra plant matter do eventually wash down into the ocean, exacerbating the problem between the Crown-of-Thorn Starfish and the coral, and consequently complicating the issues between coral health and other human-caused effects, such as global warming. This production method has made Australia the sixth largest exporter of raw sugar, the second largest producer of sugarcane, and the one of many governments to forsake its precious environmental jewel. The coral of the Great Barrier Reef is fighting an uphill battle, and so are the creatures dependant on it.
We’ve heard this before. This sort of information buzzes in the background of our society’s daily lives. We eat the Indonesian rainforest. We consume the Great Barrier Reef corals. Next week I’ll throw in a bonus anecdote about how we feast on what’s left of the Sierra Nevada snowpack. But except for the occasional news headline or remark from food-conscious friend, reminding us that our eating habits are Very Bad and Very Unnecessary, it’s hard for our guilt to obstruct our pleasure. There’s no reason to minimize the role that willpower plays in breaking bad habits, but what are some additional ways to save the environment via our eating? Part 2 will consider some of the sources of our eating behaviors.
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