The Dawn of the Ecotarian | Civil Eats

The Dawn of the Ecotarian

We live in a time where there is a seemingly endless parade of information streaming across our brains.  And increasingly, this information is ecological in scope – green, eco, natural and sustainable.

This is especially true when it comes to food, where the increased eco-awareness in the past year has been dramatic.  Oprah is now promoting the humane treatment of animals, and Safeway and Wal-mart are rapidly increasing their sales of organic products.

But, do we really understand what all this information means?  Do we, as a society, have the background to separate the truly green from the green-washed?

In our primary schools, teachers are still hobbled by restrictive No Child Left Behind regulations, forcing them to cut “electives” like classes on ecology and the environment.

And a sobering new study of over 1000 colleges and universities conducted by the National Wildlife Federation indicates, “There is a widening gap between where education actually is on teaching sustainability versus where it should be.”  There are fewer environmental courses and programs in our nation’s college campuses now than there were in 2001, the study found.

So as a nation, we are arguably receiving less environmental education than before at a time when we have to understand more environmental facts and details.

What is the solution to this growing dichotomy? We need to include Ecology in our discussion of all things green.  We need to return Eco- and Green back to their roots.  “Eco” comes from the ancient Greek word “oikos” which means “house” – the place where we live.  What this means, fundamentally, is that our ecology is the place where we live; we are not separate from it.

When it comes to an understanding of food, an integrated ecological context has significant implications.

Today’s food system is complex.

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Currently, most thinking about food is linear.  That is, people buy food, transport it home, prepare it, eat it and throw away the waste.  That’s the extent of our common awareness.

Even if we extend that discussion to organic foods, this simply extends this linear model one notch – moving the “beginning” from the store back to the organic farm.  And if we include local food in the mix, it simply makes the distances traveled smaller, and the number of steps fewer.

An alternative to this would be to recognize that food comes from a cyclical system. A circle has no beginning and no end, and neither does the food cycle.  To be sustainable, the entire food system needs to be in balance.  Therefore, we can’t pay attention to certain parts of the cycle, say organic farming, and then ignore the rest and pretend we are acting sustainably.

I hasten to clarify that I am not diminishing the importance of organic farms, or of supporting local food networks. On the contrary, they are vitally important. But they are no more important than supporting efficient compost and waste procedures, or streamlining our wholesale and retail operations.

These ideas can give valuable context to foster understanding of unfamiliar ideas. For example, if someone brings up “Vineyard Irrigation”, as mentioned in the New York Times Magazine Food Issue, then even if you don’t understand the specifics, you already know what part of the food cycle you are addressing, and what sustainability issues are addressed. A quite different set of issues arises when the conversation moves on to “Biofortification.”

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More superficially, an integration of true ecological ideas into common understanding will help prevent a consumer backlash. If we continue on in the direction we’ve been going, Eco and Green will become completely meaningless, and people will start to distrust such labeling.  This will lead to a widespread rejection of all Sustainable minded products and companies, which will be understandable but disastrous.  We need truth in labeling, and an understanding of the issues. We simply can’t afford not to.

So I urge you all to become Ecotarians, to pay attention to the entire ecological cycle as you garden, shop, cook, eat, and compost. With this broader context in mind, we can begin to pave a path toward true sustainability.

Interested? Want to hear more? For our readers that live in the Los Angeles area, Aaron French will present “Eating Greener: The Ecology of Food and Why It Matters” at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) on November 9. The presentation is a part of Sustainable Sundays, a new program at NHM, which allows visitors the opportunity to learn from museum scientists and guest researchers about international conservation issues. The presentation begins at 12:30 p.m. on November 9. Tickets can be purchased at the door; $9 for adults and $2 for kids. Conservation International’s Jen Morris will also be presenting information about investing in global pro-conservation, small- and medium-sized businesses at 2:30 p.m. For more information about Sustainable Sundays, please visit: http://www.nhm.org/calendar/ssundays.html

Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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  1. There is an assumption that eating a vegetarian diet and a diet of leafy greens is good for the earth. However, unknown to most, the production of leafy greens has now led to an all out war on wildlife and their habitats. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, please join the Wild Farm Alliance at the November 20th Teach-In called, "Food Safety Gone Astray: The Misguided War on Wildlife- a teach-in for the media, decision makers, and stakeholders". See the website www.wildfarmalliance.org for more info.

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