No Impact Food Day Q & A with Colin Beavan

Colin Beavan's experiment in low impact living compelled him to reassess just about every aspect of our daily lives: how we get around; how we shop; how we stay cool and keep warm; how we entertain ourselves; and, of course, how we eat. The production/distribution of food products uses an extraordinary amount of energy and has a huge impact on our environment. So, for the purposes of the project, Colin, Michelle and Isabella had to alter their eating habits radically.

Once his family switched to eating only foods produced within a 250-mile radius of New York City, the farmer's market became a regular ritual. Such American dietary staples as pizza, take-out Chinese--even peanut butter sandwiches--became off-limits, either because they contained non-local ingredients or generated trash.

The No Impact Project week's in full swing now, and those of us who've signed on are taking a closer look at our carbon "foodprint" today. So I asked Colin to tell us a bit more about his year-long adventure in ecological eating:

KT: Did you know when you embarked on the No Impact experiment that our eating habits play such a crucial role when it comes to climate change?

CB: I knew that the centralized, agri-giants that produced food put good nutrition and people's health very low down on their priority list. After all, they don't profit from our eating healthily; they profit from our eating more. So the environmental and human degradation caused by centralized food production and distribution came as no real surprise to me.

And the problem is not just climate change. There is a 75 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the amount of chemical fertilizer washed off American farmland and down the Mississippi.

I like eating locally because the farmers are not anonymous corporations. I can look them in the eye and become friendly with them. I can choose to trust them to make sure that they care for our land, water and climate. And I trust them to provide food I can trust for my little girl too.

KT: You've emphasized in your public appearances--on Good Morning America, for example--that reducing our meat consumption is one of the most significant ways that we can curb our carbon "foodprint." Were you a vegetarian prior to beginning the project? What inspired you to make the shift to a plant-based diet?

CB: Did you ever see the Humane Society video showing the cruelty to the cows in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO)? I'm talking about the video that sparked the largest beef recall in US history.

Becoming aware of the cruelty and the climate impact of the beef industry has done me in forever. I used to have occasional bacon and pepperoni slips, but no more.

Thinking again of the cruelty I witnessed. I can't help but believe that somehow the energy of that cruelty and unhappiness enters the animal and that energy might get passed on to whoever eats it. I don't want my little girl to be the recipient of that energy.

For those who choose not to give up meat though, I know many local farmers who treat their animals kindly. When cattle are raised well in pasture, their manure fertilizes the land, causing more plants to grow and more carbon to be sequestered in the land. This is a way better choice, in my view, than CAFO meat.

KT: You're also a strong advocate of eating locally and seasonally. Critics of the locavore movement have attempted to dismiss it as a single-minded fixation on "food miles." But your impetus for eating locally was motivated as much by your desire to stop generating all the garbage that comes with processed convenience foods and take-out. How do you pitch the ecological benefits of a predominantly local diet to skeptics who've been swayed by anti-locavore diatribes?

CB: Look at the funding for the research that is used to back up the anti-locavore spin and look where it has been published. Often times, [they are funded and published by] chemical giants. The ones that produce chemicals local farmers don't use. The ones that have the most to lose if we change our agricultural system.

But the amazing thing about local food is that it is not just good for the environment. It's better for my family too. The food, itself, is better for us. And Isabella, who sometimes doesn't eat veggies, will absolutely eat them when she has seen where they have been grown.

Local food allows for trust and community relationships. When I pay a farmer I know for food, my money supports something I care about and people I care for. I can't say that when I buy from the frozen food section.

KT: You understandably had a craving for various foods that were off-limits for the duration of your project. What did you miss the most? When the year was up, what formerly verboten foods gave you the greatest pleasure?

CB: Pizza and peanut butter.

KT: In your book, you write that the television used to be the center of your life. When your family gave up the big screen TV, the kitchen table took center stage; making meals became the proverbial "quality time" with Michelle and Isabella. And when your project put you in the media's glare, you found refuge in baking bread.

Now you're out on book tour and promoting your foundation, which presumably doesn't leave a lot of time for treks to the farmers' market, home cooked meals with friends and family, or bread making. As anyone who travels knows, finding fresh, healthy, sustainably grown food on the road can be a challenge (though the Eat Well Guide is working to make it easier all the time!). How are you eating these days, if you don't mind my asking?

CB: Badly. And this points to an important point. It is not always easy to live and to eat sustainably. That is because our major cultural systems--food production, energy generation, etc.--are not sustainable. We have to find ways to live outside those systems if we want to live sustainably.

This shouldn't be so. Our systems should be designed to be good for the people and good for the planet. You shouldn't have to "resist" the temptation to eat from your grocery store when you want to take care of yourself and the planet. Living healthily and sustainably should be as easy as falling off a log.

And that's why just changing our individual lifestyles is an important part of the equation but not the whole equation. Joining in with others to ask for system change via our city, state and federal governments is also important. To do this, finding community in grassroots environmental organizations is a big help.

And of course, you're always welcome to join in at, too!

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.