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Saving the planet means more pleasure, says ecologist Gary Nabhan

By: IPS, part of the Guardian Environment Network
Published: May 25, 2010

Saving the planet from environmental catastrophe is undoubtedly very important, but one of the reasons many people are not doing their bit could be that being green does not seem much fun.

Activists frequently tell us, with good reason, that things such as driving cars, eating red meat and jetting off overseas on holiday should be cut down or eliminated because of their hefty carbon footprints.

But influential United States-based writer and biologist Gary Nabhan has some refreshing news: conservation is not just good for the planet, it can be immensely pleasurable too, above all for the palate.

Nabhan says people have the power to help reverse the agricultural biodiversity loss that is putting our food supplies in peril in a simple way – by tucking into the rich variety of goodies nature provides.

“In other environmental issues we tell people to stop something, reduce their impact, reduce their damage,” Nabhan told IPS at this week’s Rome festival celebrating biodiversity, organised by the Bioversity International research institute.

“In this case we can say there will be more pleasure in your life, if you conserve diversity by eating the things you conserve. For 25 years the environmental movement has been telling people, ‘you’ve been having too much pleasure and we’ve consumed too many resources as a result’. But this is a ‘Yes’ message.

“The perfection of the plant world is that we get to sample this incredible range of flavours and colours.”

Many scientists are worried that biodiversity loss means agriculture has fewer and fewer resources with which to adapt to future challenges, such as climate change and water scarcity.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation says about three-quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost over the last century and that a dozen species now provides 90 percent of the animal protein consumed globally and just four crop species provide half of plant-based calories in the human diet.

“Biodiversity is an essential characteristic of any sustainable agricultural system, especially in a context of climate change. We need to ensure this is the basis for the future,” Marco Contiero, an agriculture expert for Greenpeace European, told IPS.

Nabhan believes consumers have a role to play in stopping the current trend, by going beyond the limited range of foods they are likely to find in the supermarket.

“If there is no place in the market for diversity of foods, if consumers aren’t buying them, farmers will pull them out of their fields and plant just one homogenous crop,” he said, adding that this also means people must stop judging food on appearances. “Americans, for example, eat with their eyes. Many of the finest tasting apples in the U.S. are either exquisite in ciders or as baked apples, but Americans can’t stand the way they look. Unless we put fragrance and flavour above unblemished, visual perfection, all of us are going to have trouble, because often flavour is a cue to nutrition, a variety of vitamins and minerals. If there is monotony we are not likely to get all the nutrients we need.

“Diversity and [aesthetic] perfection are at odds with each other in people’s minds. We need to redefine perfection as diversity.”

Nabhan helped the local food movement to take off with his 2001 book ‘Coming Home to Eat’, an account of his year-long mission to eat only foods grown, fished or gathered within 220 miles (354 km) of his Arizona home.

The most obvious advantages of buying locally produced food is that it is fresher and does not have the carbon footprint of the often huge journeys produce takes to reach the consumer in modern food systems.

“Each of us should question ourselves every day about what we do as individuals with the choices we make,” Nabhan said.

“When we eat we can choose to make the world richer or to make it poorer, by eating food from 3,000 miles (4,828 km) away with the large carbon footprint that entails.”

The local food movement has been criticised by those who say local produce does not always have a lower ecological footprint than items brought from afar. If, for example, those goods require heating and irrigation systems to be cultivated locally that would not be needed in other parts of the world.

It has also been argued that the shift to buying locally could hurt poor farmers in developing countries.

But Nabhan says these arguments are ill-founded because most local food supporters do not want to boycott all produce from other regions and countries, as long as it is fairly traded so that most of the sale price goes to the farmers and not to a long chain of middlemen or women.

“We are not ever saying that local will be everything,” he explained. “But to reduce the carbon footprint in the food system, it would be better if we got it back to 60 or 80 percent of the total food system.

“Now 46 percent of the carbon footprint of the food system in the U.S. and Britain is in transporting – that’s 1,200 miles (1,931) for the average fruit or vegetable.

“We are interested in reducing that carbon footprint but we also want fair trade between regions. Coastal regions that have fish and other sea food can have fair trade arrangements with coffee or fruit producers inland.

“So we are never saying farmers should only sell locally. It’s just shifting the food system so we reduce the carbon footprint. There’s many ways we can do that in addition to localising food systems.”


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