Environmental Buzz Words

organicAdvertisers slap environmental buzz words all over their products, hoping to entice you as you wander around the grocery store. But now that “being green” is becoming mainstream, I think it’s time we all properly understand the eco-vernacular…especially when it comes to food.  Here are the top five eco-adjectives I’ve seen being tossed around, and what they actually mean.

Organic

Probably the most commonly used buzz word, organic refers to the process through which something is grown. For produce, it means it was grown free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, etc. For animal bi-products like meat or dairy, it refers to not treating with antibiotics or growth hormones. Be sure to look for the USDA organic seal here! But don’t let the label fool you, the term doesn’t address the conditions that the animals were raised in or if the process was environmentally friendly.

Cage-Free or Free-Range           

Both terms essentially mean the same things – the animals are not constricted to cages. But be wary here too, it sounds like they are free to roam about grassy fields for days on end, but the reality is far less pleasant. Most cage-free or free-range poultry is contained within a barn and has limited, if any, access to the outside. And because there is no third-party auditing, this term gets thrown around quite loosely.

Grass-Fed

Ideally, cattle would feed on grass their entire lives, but corn and grain are far cheaper to produce and often become the majority of a cow’s diet. Nutritionally, grass-fed cattle produce beef with less saturated fat and more nutrients than grain-finished beef. Grass-fed beef ensures that the animal has an grass-and-hay-only diet and has access to a pasture year-round. Just like organic, look for a USDA seal here as well.

Sustainable

Here is perhaps the most vague of all the eco-buzz words. Sustainable is NOT a certified label or official policy. It can be used to refer to anything from an environmentally-friendly growing structure to an energy efficient production method to eco-friendly packaging. The term is an ad hoc device, a catch-all used in marketing to appear “greener” and rally consumers’ support.

Local

Local food, be it produce or otherwise, refers to food produced or grown within a certain distance of you as a consumer, the thought in this being that consumers are pledging support for your local economy and cutting down on your food’s carbon footprint. Unfortunately, there is no set definition of what distance qualifies something as local – so use the term as a clue to check where exactly the food is coming from and then decide about your purchase.

I know all these definitions seem rather skeptical, but I think it’s important that consumers are wary of the products they purchase. Supporting better products, means better products will be provided – it’s simple supply and demand. So demand food that’s not only good for your but also good for the environment.

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Petri Dish Patty

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 8.41.17 PMChicken or fish? Man, how I wish choosing meat was simple as it is on wedding RSVPs. Now you’re flooded with options like organic, hormone-free, cage-free or some other alternatives even I don’t fully understand. But what if the stores start carrying another option? Yes, like so many others right now, I’m talking about vitro meat.

I’m sure you heard of the alleged $330,000 hamburger tested out two weeks ago. And if you didn’t initially hear about the petri dish patty, I’m sure you heard the outcries coming from everyone from environmentalists to consumers to politicians. But in the midst of the sea of opinions, the facts are a little fuzzy.

First, let me just clear something up. Not every hamburger is going to cost $330,000 – it’s a concept in its infancy right now, and though that may seem obvious to some, you’d be surprised how many people are fooled by the price tag. Paying that much for a burger is impractical…but so are our current rates of meat production.

How impractical you may ask?

In the US, 70% of all our grain production goes to feeding livestock. Right now to produce one pound of beef, a farmer would need at least 13 pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water. That is an inefficient system…and that’s not even looking at the environmental concerns. Livestock currently accounts for about 20% of the world’s green house gas emissions, and livestock runoff is the largest water pollutant in the US.

Close to ten percent of Americans are (or have been) vegetarians – it’s obvious we’re starting to care about where our meat comes from. Regardless, we can’t seem to kick this hamburger habit, and I think that’s where petri dish patties and test tube tacos is going to come into the picture. A few cells from a cow can produce 10 tons of meat. Now that is an efficient system…once we get the price down in 10-15 years.

I wouldn’t consider myself a vegetarian or a vegan, actually I wouldn’t even put a label on it (though perhaps in saying this I’m inadvertently labeling myself as a hipster), but I care about where my food comes from. I don’t eat meat unless I know where it came from, and call me crazy, but I think vitro meat might be a decent a solution. Yes it seems far-fetched and science-fiction-esque, but let’s celebrate the innovation here. We’re making something out of practically nothing…something I wouldn’t mind smothering in barbeque sauce on a bun.