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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Making Responsible Food Choices, Part One

As a vegan, it's easy to walk around in a haze of self-congratulatory bliss, feeling proud knowing that our food choices are helping to protect animals, improve our own health, support the planet, and make more food and water resources available to the people of developing nations. Yay you! You're vegan! Everything would be perfect in the world if everyone went vegan, right?

Right? *

Well, not so fast - as it turns out, there are a whole host of problems associated with many staple vegan foods, and several in particular deserve our closer attention. Today I will begin with a discussion of one of our contry's favorite fruits. Watch for three more installments in the coming days or weeks... I have lots to say.

Let's start with bananas.

Did you know that when bananas first became available to US consumers, just after the Civil War, they were considered a luxury item, and were sold wrapped in foil, peeled and pre-sliced to protect those gentile 19th century citizens from embarrassment over the fruit's indiscreet form? (Thought I'd warm you up with a little entertaining banana trivia.)

Anyway, on to the serious stuff... in order to transform bananas from an expensive indulgence into an affordable snack for the masses, large companies (i.e. Dole, as well as the company that has come to be known in modern times as Chiquita), identified Central America as the ideal place to supply us with inexpensive, delicious bananas. Then they proceeded to clear-cut the rich forests of Nicaragua, Columbia, and Guatemala, and transform them into banana plantations.

In addition to the obvious environmental problems associated with clear-cutting native rain forests and shipping bananas thousands of miles from Central America to wherever you happen to reside, other problems have come to light -
  • In the 1950's, Central America's first democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz, was ousted in a US-sponsored coup. His offense? Asking United Fruit (now Chiquita) to pay fair prices for land and obey the Guatemalan constitution.
  • For decades, this kind of intervention in Central American politics has been commonplace as a means for keeping bananas cheap and plentiful. It has also been instrumental in keeping plantation workers overworked and underpaid.
  • As recently as 2007, Chiquita was fined $25 million by the US government for giving $1.7 million to a right-wing death squad organization in Columbia.
So what, you ask, is a compassionate gal (or guy) to do? Must we give up our beloved banana-laden breakfast smoothies? Fear not, my friend - fair trade is the answer! By purchasing fair trade bananas, you can rest assured that plantation workers are paid a living wage, receive benefits, job security, and better treatment. Fair trade certified farmers are also more likely to use sustainable, traditional growing methods (whether or not they have yet obtained an organic certification, which can be a difficult and costly process).

Although I find myself wondering - how much can the fair trade certification help in ending the massive deforestation in Central America? I mean, if the demand for bananas remains strong, they are going to continue clear-cutting to make room for more farms, right? Even if the workers are treated better on those farms... so maybe we should give some thought to at least moderately reducing our consumption of bananas overall, in addition to buying fair trade.

* Just to be clear, of course I agree that the world would be a much better place if everyone went vegan right now. But I think it's important to continue to explore food choices, and not just rest on our morally superior laurels while we eat our tofu and nutritional yeast. Agreed?

The information in this post came from the Jan-Feb '09 issue of VegNews magazine (see Food, Inc., beginning on page 40).


Anonymous said...

Great blog! I really enjoyed todays post, as well as the info about beetles used as food coloring agents. Keep up the good writing.

Canadian Rockies Art - Nathalie Girard said...

Wow, I had no clue how they go about all this. My family and I don't eat bananas (I'm highly allergic, so no banana eaten by anyone here - I have an epipen for it), but I agree that making responsible food choices is really something to keep in mind.

Our dollars are our voices when it comes to these companies, so I'm looking forward to reading more about all this in your next installments on your blog.

I love your blog T, it's highly informative. I really appreciate that.


Shelby Cobras said...

I'm BANANAS for this blog

Marla Rose said...

Small world -- I actually wrote the article referenced in this piece. I was sent the link by someone I quoted in the original VegNews article.

Anyway, the issue with bananas and deforestation, I believe, is mostly resolved by growing fair (or direct) trade: they have stringent environmental standards they need to maintain, as well as human rights standards, to receive the Fair-Trade Certified sticker.

Thanks for bringing the issues around food and justice to your readers.

Marla Rose