The Ecological Impact of Too Many Choices

These days, people want it all. We want regular potato chips, baked potato chips, all the flavors we’ve had in the past, and new ones too. We also want juices that are unpasteurized, pasteurized, half-sugar, no sugar added, regular, sweetened with sucralose, or stevia and erythritol for those who don’t like the idea of sucralose. We also want full-calorie, low-calorie, low-fat, sugar-free, low-carb, and gluten-free foods. We want the option to have cheap conventional coffee as well as shade-grown and fair-trade coffees so we can choose between saving money and feeling better about the environment.

On top of this we also want the option of electric cars, high gas mileage vehicles, giant trucks, or those that can seat a small army of either children or commuters. We want the latest iPhones and we want them NOW. We complain that things coming from China are terrible in regards to labour but do we ever stop and think of the ecological impacts of too many choices in other regards, such as with food and ethical labelling?

We must understand that in order to have regular food, organic food, and non-GMO food, we must make more and more crops in order to adhere to people’s widely varying modern preferences. Now we’ve got crops of regular corn, organic corn, non-GMO corn, and the odd biorhythmically grown corn crop as well. All of these crops must be separate to meet said demands, because consumers don’t want their organic corn contaminated by conventional growing methods, and their biorhythmic foods must not be grown during the wrong orbit.

Some of these things are positive, such as organic farms using less energy and more nutrient retention in the soil. Some of these things are not, noting that the same study cites that organic farming needs more land for their yields, has the potential to cause more water pollution, and has a more acidifying effect on the surrounding environment. This being said, it still has an overall lesser impact on the environment than conventional growing. The problem being, however, that with lower yields, there is the tricky balance of being better for the environment but still needing extra land cleared for crops. Thankfully as studies like this continue to surface, these issues are being acknowledged and worked on.

Another worrying thing is that, in addition to wanting non-local foods year round such as coconuts, pineapples, bananas, mango, and dragon fruit — we also want exotic specialty ‘superfoods’ such as noni, mangosteen, acai and goji berries, and so on. The list seems to increase every year, trying to sell us something exotic from afar and promising it as a new ‘fountain of youth’, when we have foods like that in our own climate such as blueberries that we sadly ignore while increasing our carbon footprint for the far-away promise of health.

Demographers predict that the population could either hit 11 billion by 2100 or cap off at 8 or 9 billionIf the former does occur, will we really be equipped to provide food and residence for a growing number of people while we continue to screw around with land … trying to up-sell things to people who are just getting fussier and fussier, blinded by the notion of health (or lack there-of) or labels?

And it’s not just our fault. A lot of our crops go towards feeding livestock. However, with a lot of people strongly refusing to reduce their intake of meat, what does this have to say for the future? As revealed by the infographic article linked earlier in this paragraph, it seems the US is trying to get more milk from fewer cows. This efficiency is actually better for the environment, as there becomes less waste as less cows are needed. It also reveals that corn may be more efficient for this than grass. It challenges popular concerns: food transportation may be beneficial in some cases, as more local trips may be necessary to get the mass quantities of eggs needed for a supermarket, stacking on the miles opposed to longer transportation of a higher volume of eggs from farms that are further away. However, all these things have downsides such as the possible use of antibiotics and hormones, as well as animals becoming sick.

Regarding fruits and vegetables, are we really okay with the fact that cutting down forests is the most popular method of creating crops? And seeing as Canada may be one of the places that will have their crops least affected by climate change, are lots of our forests going to be cut down in sacrifice of higher population and global emissions? How would people cope when they realize that Canada’s climate can’t support many of the foods they want? That a lot of things may have to be greenhouse grown considering many places in Canada have 6-8 month periods of snow?

Could we fix this by eating less, considering that 35% of adults in the US and about a quarter of Canadians are obese, and that 15% of food that is thrown out isn’t even opened? Or is the remedy simply more exercise?

Either way, whether or not we’re overeating, while we’re still tossing that much food, do we really need even more choices when it comes to processed and packaged foods? And do we really need more exotic foods shipped in from overseas? Where does freedom of choice versus resource management come into play?

For the time being, perhaps compromises on both sides are needed. Less specialty health-food, and less new flavours of soda and chips. But until we stop our massive habits of consumption, only time will tell how much of that silver spoon will be left in the next few decades.