The last part of the round table we participated in last Friday centered around "hot topics". It started with a discussion of buying local produce. They started with a story about an independent chain of supermarkets that is known for it's sourcing of local products. The caveat was that the company does not hold the local producers to the same quality standards that are required from the national suppliers. This is turn sparked some debate among the professors present as to whether or not this was actually true since the chain in question was training their local sources in order to bring them all up to the minimum standards by next year. Regardless, the next question posed was whether buying local produce (meaning from within the state, and yes there was a discussion of what the term local actually means and its fluidity from person to person) from Walmart was in the same spirit as buying local from the farmer's market or independent store.
We moved on to a discussion of virtual water, which is basically the amount of water that goes into creating a food product. This is important because there are billions of people on this planet without access to clean, potable water. The suggestion was made that as chefs and restaurateurs we should base some of our decisions on the virtual water value of ingredients and perhaps even boycott products coming from countries without clean water resources for the population in an effort to create change. I'm sure that I don't have to tell you that these statements sparked all kinds of debates, both for and against using virtual water value as an assessment tool in food service purchasing. Either way it gave us plenty to think about.
We talked briefly about animal husbandry and organics. It was pointed out that organic farmers have no incentive to treat sick cows with antibiotics because then the cows must be quarantined and can no longer be used for milk that is certified organic. The reasoning was that the animals are made to suffer for longer periods of time because farmers actually delay treatment in order to avoid lowering production. It was also pointed out that regular, non-organic milk is screened for antibiotics and no milk with any trace of antibiotics is allowed to be sold in the United States. The question posed was why do people choose to buy organic and is it really better.
From there we moved on to carbon footprints. We all know that rising price of gas has greatly impacted our food system. The idea of eating locally is one that has been embraced for reasons of sustainability, economics and pollution. At the round table it was pointed out that for those of us living in New York, wine transported from France actually has a smaller carbon footprint than wine that comes to us from California because the wine from France travels by ship and wine from California travels by truck. So if you use the carbon footprint as your gauge for being a responsible consumer it is better to buy wine from France if you live on the east coast. Again, this opened a rather large can of worms from many different viewpoints not the least of which is whether or not buying American is better than sending the money outside of the country and whether or not some wineries ship by train and whether that has a smaller carbon footprint than the ship that travels from France.
Now these were brief presentations and meant to be provoking. I've been making my way through Marion Nestle's book What to Eat and so I found all of this pointed controversy both interesting and exhausting. There was one person at the table who actually asked the question "why should I care about these things?" His point was that if the government doesn't get behind these issues and there is no change in policy and regulations and his bosses aren't interested in supporting these choices because the consumers dining in his restaurant don't really care, what is his incentive to jump on the bandwagon and spend the time and effort to research all of these issues and make considered choices? One answer was preserving the planet for his children. He acknowledged that he would like to do that but that because the choices are so convoluted and that the information is relatively hard to find, that the amount of work that would go into tracking down the information was more effort than it was worth in terms of the actual impact his decisions would have on the problems.
It's a conundrum. I was sorry that they left these topics for the very end of the discussion when there was so little time to explore them. At the same time I have to admit that the more information I receive, the more complicated the choices become. Buying local seems like an easy choice until you start dissecting what local means, how local supplies are processed and the carbon footprints involved. The question is how much information is too much? How informed can our choices be? Most importantly how economically viable are responsible choices. I don't have any answers as of yet. I know that we try to make the best choices that we can. I just don't always know if they are the right ones. The more information I get, the less sure I am of the right answers.