Eating with conscience

Food is one of our basic needs, it’s one of the most import things in my life – I cook, I read about nutrition, and when I visit a new place I get to know it through the local food and restaurants (often looking them up on the HappyCow app). And it’s part of this series about sustainable travel, of course. It matters when you’re on the road, and it matters at home.

I was going to write about food while travelling as well as at home, as part of the sustainability series. So I sat down and addressed different matters – and wrote, and wrote. There is so much to say, so you’ll get two articles on this! I love food!
Now I’m not going to tell you about what kind of diet you should follow and what kinds of foods are healthy. Everyone is different, and everyone can do research. But I am going to confront you with some facts about the impact our daily food decisions have on the world – people, animals, the environment. What we choose to eat is something we should think about more – when we travel, and at home. What follows are some of the many reasons why I’m vegan, why I try to buy local, seasonal, unpackaged foods. I’m not saying “what you eat is bad for the world” – I’m just giving you information. Then make your own decisions.
Neither am I saying you should give things up – I’m saying let’s explore more sustainable options!
There are loads of blogs, books, YouTube videos etc. out there for inspiration, recipes, and more, and I have linked them below!

Last week I watched two documentaries about food. One came to the conclusion that if you follow a vegan diet, you can eat as many carbohydrates as you want, you won’t get obese and you’re pretty much safe from disease like diabetes, because all of that is caused by animal products.[1] The second one concluded that sugar is the one thing that makes people sick, especially fructose, so smoothies are among the “bad foods”, and you can eat as much meat as you want, cut the sugar and you’ll be lean and healthy.[2] This sounds much exaggerated, and maybe by summarizing it in one sentence it is, but both had scientific proof and done profound research. What I’m saying is: There is enough information out there to fit your needs, I don’t need to add more.
I function best on a vegan diet, but a raw vegan diet wasn’t for me. Other people lack nutrients when they eat vegan and I don’t want to encourage anyone to only be healthy with supplements. I’m tired of this discussion whether a vegan diet is healthy or not.
I’m not a nutritionist.

I could, however, talk for hours about the impact on climate change and animal welfare that the production of meat, egg and dairy have. That is part of my job, and it was while travelling that many things in this area are very clear to me, but only because this is what I’m studying. Not everyone knows that if you eat a hamburger, it’s much more likely to be dairy cow meat than “actual” beef. The reason is simple: 

Nowadays, farmers have usually specialized in just one product: Milk, or meat, or eggs, or crop,… And the cows that produce are different breeds (mostly Friesians, these black and white ones) than the ones that produce meat. They are also kept in different ways. A dairy cow has a life expectancy of about five years. When she’s two, she gives birth to her first calf, starting the milk production. After a while, it decreases, so she has to become pregnant again. Three lactation periods (or two more calves) later, she has either severe hoof problems, or mastitis (inflammation of the udder that will cause the milk yield to drop and the milk to become unfit for sale) or fertility problems. These are the three main reasons why cows are culled in a dairy farm – when they don’t get pregnant, they won’t give any more milk. When they’re sick, they give less milk. So what to do with them? Dairy cows are very skinny creatures, all of their energy goes into the milk (which is why the male offspring is pretty much worthless, grows no muscles, gives no milk), but selling their meat is still better than nothing.
There are far more dairy cows out there than beef cattle.

A friend once asked me how I can be a vegan and work with farm animals at the same time. For me, this makes sense. As much as we (those barefoot, long-haired activist vegans…) would like them to, people aren’t going to go vegetarian any time soon (some will, but I mean: the world population). So as long as the demand for animal products is there, it is our (the veterinarians’, not the vegans’) job to make their lives as bearable as possible and decrease their sufferings as much as possible.

What about the “worthless calves”, you want to know? Like the female calves, they are taken from their mother before bonding can take place. The colostrum, the thick milk rich in antibodies is milked by hand and bottle-fed to the calf. And as soon as the milk is “back to normal” it goes to humans. The male babies are the calf meat. This white meat. The color is usually caused by an iron deficiency. They have a very short life in a small, dark space.
So how about organic meat, then?
vegan ice crem in eco container
Yes, the animals have a few more privileges, like organic silage instead of conventional one. But the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animals is prohibited in the EU, and heavily regulated. Veterinarians have to take a sample and figure out the specific bacteria that’s causing the disease before administering antibiotics (in real life, it means that they start treating what they suspect and then switching if the suspicion was wrong, because the microbes may take too long to grow for the patient to survive), something most human doctors don’t do, but this just as a side note.
Many of the issues are the same, no matter if the animals are organic or not: The calf still doesn’t get her mother’s milk, obviously (unless it’s a beef cow). Turkeys still have severe problems with pododermatitis, an inflammation of the foot pad that is caused by their weight in combination with the increasingly soiled ground they live on. Turkeys have a life span of 16 (females) and 21 (males) weeks, and during this time, they live on the same bedding. And egg producing hens and meat producing chicken are still two different breeds, making the male offspring of the egg-breed worthless.

This may seem a lot for someone who said “I’m not trying to make you vegan”. But really, this is all coming from my professional knowledge as a vet student. In my very first week of university, I learned that most of the chicken we have in Germany become 32 days old – when they “don’t even know what gender they are”, as my professor put it. I learn about methods to fight behavioral problems: due to lack of space and things to do, production animals get bored. So pigs often get into the habit of biting into each other’s tails. Once they start bleeding, they are even more interesting and yummy. So at some point the tail is gone, the stump infected, the spinal cord exposed. In order to prevent this, the tails are simply cut off during the first few days in a pig’s life. Germany is putting a ban on doing this without anesthesia, but I saw with my own eyes: at the time the tail is cut, there are no nerves or bones in the area, so cutting through the skin is the only pain. A worse problem is castrating the male piglets without putting them to sleep: this hurts them much more. But many people find the taste of boars unappealing.
Hens do a similar thing, they peck at each other. When they see the blood, they get curious and, as these birds naturally do, peck some more. This can lead to cannibalism, when a hoard of hens picks at one individual, tearing out organs (sometimes they do it themselves because they don’t know what it is), until this hen ultimately dies. Of course the farmer’s want to prevent this, and it turns out that if you turn down the lights, so that it’s twilight all the time, this doesn’t happen as frequently.
We also learn about the financial struggles of farmers. Animal products are cheap. Having a few hundred cows and chicken is not something to earn money. It’s a constant struggle to keep afloat. And it is why the decision about an individual animal’s treatment is often based on what it costs.
And we have to work in a slaughterhouse for three weeks (in Germany at least). I think everyone should do this, to be honest. Vets know exactly where their animal products come from, how their meat is made.

When it comes to animal products, another important point is the land that is used – and what we could use it for instead, feeding many more people. One third of the earth’s land is used for keeping animals. I’ve mentioned this in the post on sustainable travel. 10.7% of the world population are currently suffering from chronic undernourishment, most of them living in low-income countries, mainly in African and Asian developing countries (in the sub-Saharan region, 23 percent of people are undernourished. UNICEF and the WHO estimate that 43 percent of child deaths are due to undernourishment. 

On the other end, we throw away 82 kg of perfectly good food per person and year in Germany (worth 235€, consider that!), in the USA it’s even more: Between 102 and 132 kg per person and year. The average family of four in America wastes 2kg of food every day.
In total, that is 18 million kg of food in Germany. Food that could have still been eaten. Estimates say that Americans dump 15 of the food they buy and when we remember that food also goes to waste directly from the stores, 25% of the supply are being sent to landfills in the US. That makes up 14% of landfill content by weight – and here, it can’t rot, but as researchers have found, is being preserved instead. Yet another reason why we should sort our trash and put orange peels, apple cores and tea leaves to the compost instead of the general waste (after we have further used these things to make our own DIY-zerowaste household cleaner, apple cider vinegar and kombucha, of course – you see, so many things are useful that we never thought of!)
In Germany, the food we throw away every year has grown on 2.6 hectares of land.
We could save a lot of money and resources by not wasting valuable food!
Before you buy any food, check what you still have at home. It may be easier for you if you store it all in clear containers. Have a system in your fridge. Maybe even consider planning your meals a bit. Write a shopping list before you go and get groceries. This will help you not buying more than you can eat before it starts looking ugly. Find out how to correctly store your food to make it look nice longer:

There are many options with what to do with the leftovers and the fruit and veggies that don’t look so nice anymore (smoothie, anyone?). You can even regrow vegetables (like spring onions, for example) and ginger from the stumps, make a vegetable stock from peels and stumps (and some fresh garlic and onions), or use the greens of radishes as a smoothie ingredient. I’ve linked some great resources below! If you buy your produce organically grown, there is absolutely no need to peel apples, carrots, or potatoes. Also… this issue with the best-before-date. Look at the name. Does it say: going bad on this day exactly? No. It’s another of these regulations that also say how big bananas have to be to be sold in the EU. Chocolate, Rice, pasta and the like – I’ve never seen that go bad. When it comes to stuff like dairy products or nut milks – a tiny sip won’t make you sick, but it will tell you if it still tastes good.
According to the FAO, we have enough food in the world to feed everyone. But the “four dimensions of food security” (physical availability of food, economical and physical access to food, food utilization, and stability of these factors over time) are often not met.
We also have to consider all the energy that goes into producing our food. The crop and water for animal products, the water for plants – this will go into the water-themed article. But obviously, when we want oranges in Germany, or strawberries in Sweden in December, it takes much more energy, water and transportation, thus CO2 emissions, to get it.
Did you know that the average food product travels about 1,500 miles to get to your grocery store? And that transporting food accounts for 30,800 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year? (

Here, you can find vast information about how our food is linked to climate change (especially meat) – scroll down on that page to find the studies in English!

What grows where you are when you are there?
We all know that tomatoes from greenhouses or imported from Spain don’t taste as good as those fresh tomatoes that Germany can offer in the summer. And most of them are picked green before transportation and then ripened artificially.
I love strawberries. I eat them every day during strawberry season in Germany. That’s about two months every year.
Now, in Thailand, there are no strawberries. But the mangoes and papayas, the passion fruit and coconuts are fresh from the backyard, and they taste so much better than anywhere else.

This reminds me: this all started because I wanted to write about sustainable travel! So, more on this next time.

Recommended for deliciousness and more:

If you want to dig deeper, here are my recommendations:

A word on research: Please check were the information and the money comes from. Research projects need funding. If the sponsor of a study about sugar is coca cola, how neutral do you think the interpretation of the data can be?

More sources:

[1] What the Health, by Kip Andersen, 2017
[2] That Sugar Film, by Damon Gameau, 2015


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