The Struggle for Sustainability

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Livingston, Montana

Some people think its odd that I want to visit farms when I travel as it is not a typical tourism destination. In Portland Skinny Backpacker asked me why I was so interested in agriculture.

 

Good question

 

I haven’t always been this way. I grew up in an apple valley and had no interest in farming. It has been a slow road that began in university. I love food so I learned how to cook. When you cook from scratch you begin to think about the ingredients: cost and where they come from. I started reading more about food sourcing and after watching the Future of Food I decided to buy organic. But this meant eating less meat as I needed to save money for my career break.

At that time I was eating organic because I was worried about my health. It seemed to make sense that if we poured chemicals into the ground and tried to grow a potato in that ground eventually we’d be eating those chemicals.

But in Latin America I started to see where the food was actually coming from, that there were workers on banana plantations who breathed in the fumes of pesticides from spraying the plants. So even if bananas weren’t one of the ‘dirty dozen‘ those pesticides still had an impact.

More than ever I am committed to choosing organic not only because it’s good for me but it’s also good for the people who supply my food.

montana countryside

Coming to Montana I knew it was cattle country and wondered how things were developing here. Did anyone think about these things? I asked to visit some farms and was surprised to hear people are getting organized and there is a Western Sustainability Exchange. The association is all about protecting the future of the region. It means making farming and ranching profitable, while protecting the land and providing good food.

Two hours flew by at the offices of the Western Sustainability Exchange. We didn’t agree on how everything should be done. I think we should eat less meat and many people in Montana would take issue with that. But we both have the same end goal and for that I’m willing to listen and learn.

Some aspects are more difficult to organize, there are small simple things like a weekly farmers market in Livingston that acts as a community social event complete with music. Farmers meet each other and the public. Restaurants like Cafe Decamp are coming on board and choosing a menu that changes with local availability.

The association has also had a lot of success teaching ranchers more sustainable practices, which fortunately reduces operating costs. They also realized that some ranchers thought more was better but weren’t making greater profits. So they needed to educate them on profit margins and understanding where they maxed out on profit and efforts.

 

That was easy

 

One of the most difficult issues is the actual meat processing which can be costly. It’s easier for a rancher to sell the animal than to process it. There is no demand for offal and the plant charges an exorbitant fee to remove it out of state. Supplying a finished product just doesn’t make sense to most ranchers. It’s too risky.

That could change.

The association has brought together groups of people from ranching to distribution to rethink ranching, how can they make it more profitable so people can buy local? There is no answer yet but they are working on a number of ideas.

The other issue is that people just want cheap food. While we say we want to protect the environment and support our community we are not willing to pay our local food suppliers more. This is not limited to Montana, this is universal.

And then we are surprised that there is pink slime or ammonia in our hamburgers. We want a dollar menu but don’t want to see how that animal was raised so it would be so inexpensive.

>At times it can be frustrating and I don’t know what the answer is but I am going to keep visiting farms and meeting people trying to create change.

 

Disclosure: I was a guest of Visit Montana but they did not request that I write a favourable review or make the blunder to tell cattle ranchers we should eat less meat.
 

Join the Conversation

  1. Cheryl @ handcraftedtravellers says:

    As an organic farmer, occasional traveler and real food lover I do not find it strange at all that you visit farms. There is a lot to be learned from both sides of the fence. If people learned how their food was grown, then perhaps they would be willing to pay more to the farmer who actually raised the chicken or planted and tended to the carrots – which are not perfect, but of all sizes and sometimes a little gnarly. The same problems apply to sustainability in the fashion industry as well. An experienced knitter may well take a month knitting a sweater, while someone else may not want to pay more than thirty dollars, though a “sustainable” one may cost ten times as much. It is our mindset as consumers that needs to change, along with farmers and artists being able to charge fairly for their work and being paid for their kindness to the environment.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I agree that people need to understand what their food looks like when grown. People have no idea what chicken from a factory farm looks like, if they knew I think they would be far more willing to support local, organic farmers.

  2. Meg | One Love Meg says:

    That’s the biggest battle , people want cheap healthy food and they can’t have both so they settle for the cheap food that is full of pesticides and growth hormones and loads and loads of other crap. It’s amazing how messed up the food industry is in the states. It’s gotten out of control. Going home will be interesting, especially the eating part. I wouldn’t eat meat in America if you paid me.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I read that Americans used to spend 18% of their income on food and now spend around 9% – the only way you can do that is increase processing. It actually scares me because they say one of the biggest environmental concerns is that people in China are following a North American diet and increasingly eating more meat.

  3. Ashley of Ashley Abroad says:

    Great article. I think a lot of people believe that you have to eat meat every day in order to be healthy, and that’s simply not true. I prefer to eat less meat but then buy it from sustainable sources like you said. Have you seen Food Inc. or read the Omnivore’s Dilemma? Those both really inspired me to source my food locally.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I loved Omnivores Dilemma but it is a hefty book. Food Inc was a bit light for me but if you really want to know more about GMO food watch The Future of Food, it is what made me decide to start eating organic.

  4. EarthDrifter says:

    Perhaps the best thing we can spend our money on is the food we put into our bodies. Spending more on healthier food now can save on future hospital bills.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I completely agree with you on that, if I don’t get a big bunch of greens in me each day I start to feel really lethargic and depend on coffee.

  5. I also interested in sustainable travel as well. I think that is the right thing to focus. I recently visited one place that was focusing on those, it was really good to learn.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Which place was that?

  6. I fully agree with your viewpoint. And I agree even more as I am struggling between being persuaded by the necessity to eat organic and the need to save money. Organic food is hard to get for most people living in urban environment. I try to buy organic, but the most I can do is to buy organic milk and eggs. For the rest I either can’t find on a regular basis, or I can’t really afford. So there’s a dilemma and a compromise in this.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Dairy was one of the first things I decided to eat organic because of how cows are treated. My compromise with everything is that I eat less meat so I can afford to eat the rest organic. I rarely cook meat at home unless it’s a bit of chorizo or pancetta to flavour vegetables.

  7. Caanan @ No Vacation Required says:

    What we try to do – and what you have done with this (and other posts) – is to make people more aware of the impact of eating meat. That awareness informs decisions and those decisions add up to real change, which is good for the planet and conscientious meat producers / suppliers.

    Great post.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I will always eat meat but I do believe we need to be more informed of where food comes from, it shouldn’t stop at styrofoam containers in the supermarket.

  8. I love the reflection. It doesn’t only count for food. People want everything cheap, and then they are surprised that everything comes from China and that local business can’t survive…

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I completely agree with you, we forget that if we buy something for $1 some person had to produce it for much less than that.

  9. Chrystal McKay says:

    I tried to eat Organic when its available but I don’t really go out of my way to get it. But some of my favourite restaurants are organic and I’m a repeat customer. I think it is harder to get Organic in Canada with our winters when most fruits/vegetables are imported and need a preservative for them to make it to our stores without spoiling. The meat issue – I have no idea how that would work but I don’t eat meat so I’m not contributing.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I think we have really gotten away from buying food in season. There was a time when you only ate strawberries in the summer but now we demand them all year round. I am really working on canning and preserving what I can and then simply sticking to local foods as much as I can.

  10. Matthew Karsten says:

    You’re lucky those cowboys didn’t kick you out of Montana! 🙂

    I’d be willing to pay a bit more for my bacon to ensure it wasn’t filled with hormones & who knows what else…

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I know, it was like all happy music and then a needle scratch when I made that comment!

      You can definitely get bacon without hormones and other junk, but not in a supermarket. One of my goals for 2013 is to learn to make it myself.

  11. The more I travel the more I develop a different relationship with my food. LOVE.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I think travel gives you a much stronger connection to many things in the world.

  12. Camels & Chocolate says:

    OK, here’s a test for you: Do you know what the CAP is (without Googling it)? It was Scott’s obsession when we met back in 2005!

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      I have no idea! Please tell me what it is.

      1. Camels & Chocolate says:

        The Common Agricultural Policy. Our European degree was in EU politics so it became a bit of a focal point for Scott.

        From Wiki:

        The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a system of European Union agricultural subsidies and programmes. It represented 47% of the EU’s budget, €50 billion in 2006. The CAP combines a direct subsidy payment for crops and land which may be cultivated with price support mechanisms, including guaranteed minimum prices, import tariffs and quotas on certain goods from outside the EU. Reforms are currently underway reducing import controls and transferring subsidy to land stewardship rather than specific crop production. The aim of the CAP is to provide farmers with a reasonable standard of living, consumers with quality food at fair prices and to preserve rural heritage

  13. “but I am going to keep visiting farms and meeting people trying to create change.”

    You are doing this very well!

    Every time I read your blog I learn something.

    Peace.

    1. Ayngelina Author says:

      Thanks Silvia, are you in Portugal or Brazil? I am thinking of heading South this winter.

      1. I am going to spend almost a month in Brazil (from December 10th until January 8th). If you get in Rio during this time, please, let me know.

        1. Ayngelina Author says:

          I think I may just miss you 🙁

  14. I think your photo of the quote sums it up. Every time you buy something, you vote on where you want your food to come from and what you are willing to pay for it. And it’s something everybody should keep in mind.

  15. Very interesting post 🙂
    I think visiting farms and “off the beaten path” places is also a good way to get to know local people and have a sense of the life they’re living, which we would never be aware of while sticking to the tourists’ attractions. That’s the real value of travel to me, love your spirit!

  16. The battle between cheap and healthy is a major one if you’re buying your food in a grocery store.

    I eat a vegan diet, and during the summer I get virtually all my food from local farmers (or my own garden) with a few organic staples thrown in. But even when I ate meat I got local, organic, grass-fed beef or chicken for a pretty low price from a local rancher.

    I’d rather eat less, but nutritious, food and pay a little more. Buying locally gives me the great pleasure of giving my money directly to my neighborhood farmers.

    As for books of this ilk, try “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.

  17. Scott - Quirky Travel Guy says:

    I’ve been trying to re-work my diet to include less meat and more veggies and fruits. Eating less meat makes so much sense in so many ways. I was reading an article the other day which asked the question, Is it really worth making people sick and obese just so some farmers and ranchers can continue to do what they’ve always been doing?

  18. Ayngelina I think if you ever go back to Hawaii you need to visit the Big Island. There is a very interesting and passionate movement there to bring local agriculture back to the islands. I met with so many fascinating people there who were running values-based, rather than profit-based businesses. Can’t wait to write about it!

  19. Emily in Chile says:

    The Western Sustainability Exchange sounds like a great initiative. I feel like getting that first critical mass of consumers willing to pay a little more is the real challenge – here in Chile organic is often SO much more expensive that it really just isn’t financially doable because the market is still so small. Luckily I think we’re headed in a positive direction and gaining momentum.

  20. I definitely agree that it’s a struggle. It’s hard to buy expensive food when something seemingly similar is so much cheaper, but I have never purchased any organic food that didn’t taste worlds better than its non organic counterpart.

  21. Jesse Richheimer @ GreenGlobalTravel says:

    The biggest thing about sustainability is informing people about taking steps to create change! If we had more people like you out there to help foster this message, we’d live healthier, more sustainable lives!

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