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Food and Drink

In the green shadow of Earth Day

It was the warmest winter on record for all of us in Canada this year – for we Canucks; for our beautiful polar bears; for the salmon about to migrate up our rivers; for the teensy mountain pine beetles munching their way through 80 per cent of our lodgepole pine forests because winters have been too warm to kill the buggers off; for our pets, who will likely get more fleas; for our forests and gardens.

Right now thanks to our record warm winter, and sudden burst of heat this spring, there’s a massive green aphid invasion infesting my chives and tulips, the likes of which I’ve never seen. For the tulips it will mean a shorter bloom of glory.

But for the chives it’s more than that. Normally I snip them, give them a quick rinse since they never see the underside of a chemical bottle, and toss them into salad. This year it’s not going to be as simple, or as appetizing, what with all those bugs and their squishy juices – not at all what anyone has in mind in terms of going green.

When we hear about the fallout from global warming it’s usually in the context of the big picture: Greenland ice sheets disappearing in a blink, forests in Indonesia and the Yukon up in smoke because of drought, the Arctic and Antarctic meltdowns. Enough to make you drag out your Earth Day posters and your Earth shoes all over again.

But what about the interface between what’s on our plates and global warming?

Not to guilt you out or anything, but thinking about it one day a year just ain’t gonna cut it. A little mindfulness at the grocery store, as well as the gas pumps, every day will go a long way in keeping your basic Earth sense grounded.

First of all, here’s a little carbon-bomb I just found out about. Buying organic isn’t just about avoiding carcinogens and crappy, tasteless agri-biz food. The chemical pesticides used in factory farming actually destroy the micro-organisms in the soil that keep carbon there. When the micro-organisms are gone, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as CO2. As well, when those organisms are destroyed, soil is no longer naturally fertile and chemical fertilizers are a necessity, not a luxury.

This leads to the next link between fossil fuels and food fields.

"Agriculture in this country is not about food; it’s about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy to become food," writes Richard Manning, author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilizations , in a classic essay in Harper’s Magazine , February, 2004. He’s referring to the USA, but we sure can’t take the moral high ground in Canada.

Manning puts the terms of reference in pretty poignant picto-bytes. Nobody lets fields lie fallow and regenerate naturally anymore like the original prairie grasslands used to. For decades, oil-rich fertilizers have been the key to fertility – sardonically, the original oil for food program.

On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year’s worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land. The fields in little old Iowa alone need the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs each year just to keep on pumping out their corn and grain, most of it bound to feed cattle.

But vegans shouldn’t feel too smug. The energy needed to produce tofu and soy milk is about equal to that needed to produce grass-fed beef raised locally. The choice is yours.

Overall, David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, estimates that if everyone in the world ate the way Americans (and Canadians) eat, we would deplete all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. His detractors say he is off the mark by as much as 30 per cent. Okay, so that’s 10 years.

And then there’s all the carbon used up in transporting food ridiculous distances. Pears shipped from Argentina in April? Come on folks, that’s 11,000 km that stuff has been shipped – which means it was picked two months ago. How real is that?

Then there are all the possible impacts climate change will have on actual food production and supplies. Tim Flannery outlines it all in his seminal The Weather Makers , the book everybody is sitting up at night to read, including Tony Blair.

Water shortages, the sickening decrease in biodiversity including the threat to the handful of agri-food hybrids we’ve come to depend on – it’s not a pretty sight. And that’s not even taking into account pest infestations, like the oozy green coagulations of aphids on your chives.

So shake it up people. Don’t sit around getting worried, or very, very worried, as the April 3 issue of Time magazine exhorts us to be (when global warming headlines Time you know it’s gone mainstream). Here’s what you can distract yourself with and feel good about doing at the same time. For more tips go to

Eat locally grown food

, which means checking out the funky display boxes in your grocery store. It just takes a minute and you’ll learn all about the idiosyncrasies of graphic styles from around the world. If your food doesn't have to travel far, there are thousands of benefits, including way less greenhouse gas emissions from the trucks and trains and planes and ships that ship it.

If it seems weird to eat pears in April

and strawberries in December, it probably is. So eat fruits and vegetables in season. Again, it saves enormous transportation costs on all levels. And essentially it’s way healthier for you, as vitamins and minerals in fresh produce diminish with time.

Plant your own vegetable garden

, or at least a pot of parsley on your windowsill. It's not as hard as you might think.

You can’t buy recycled food

, but you can check to see that the packaging can be recycled. Look for the recyclable logo: three arrows forming a triangle.

Minimalism is hot

. Every time you over-buy and chuck out food because you didn’t get to it in time, or over-eat, you are pretty much in the scary realm of neurosis, or at least really bad habits.

Bulk up.

Bulk items use less packaging, which translates into less energy.

If you’re going to eat calories

, make sure they are really, really good calories. One fabulous, locally handmade chocolate is worth a hundred crummy factory bars.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who found a pair of earth shoes at a garage sale the other day.