Go Raw! Cure the Planet!

The Raw Foods Diet: An Environmentalist Perspective

Environmentalists and raw foods aficionados share several things in common. But perhaps the most familiar similarity is: People think we’re nuts. We’re “eccentric,” perhaps, if they mean to be kind. “Wackos,” if they mean to be Rush Limbaugh. I’ll buy that term eccentric—we aren’t, either group, in the norm. But I’m not buying into wacko.

We share also the belief, a moral belief, that we are engaged in bringing a measure of sanity to the world. It’s not my aim to stand on a soapbox today. I am, after all, in this writing, preaching to the converted—converted, at least, to one of these causes, if not both. But if I can plant just one foot up on the box for a moment, consider that shared claim about promoting sanity…We raw foodists (along with vegans, vegetarians and even our more distant cousins, dieters and conventional nutritionists) seek to bring reason and restraint to a world gone mad with food. Obesity and diabetes are now rampant in the United States, to cite just one western nation so suffering. For a glimpse at where we’re headed, nutrition- and health-wise, take a gander at the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru, where, incredibly, diabetes and obesity are now the statistical norm. Likewise, in North America, we’ve allowed whole ecosystems to be swallowed in pavement and smog, and species after species to disappear at our own hands. Those results are where we find the madness—not in the person seeking to save a slice of national forest or restore a river to its natural state, and not in the person hunting for just the right kind of raw nuts or organically grown mango in the health food market.

But can we raw foodists and you environmentalists meet on still other, more practical grounds? My definitive answer: Yes. My peculiar expertise is in nutrition—specifically, raw foods and their value in health and beauty. So I won’t claim to “be an environmentalist” or even to define what that is. Usually, I’m engaged in pressing the agenda of the raw foods movement in terms of health, and I’m always going on about this vitamin, that protein, these hormones, and sometimes recipes, beauty tips, or how a raw foods regimen dovetails nicely with a Bikram yoga program. That’s Birkenstock-wearing enough, I hope, to appeal even to the most peasant-skirted, Volvo-driving environmentalist among you. (Yes, I know those are clichés. Thanks for forgiving. You’re welcome to stereotype me, too, as long as it’s in fun!) But these aren’t the topics I’m dealing in today.

The fact is, I’d like to persuade more environmentally-concerned people to eat raw. And if you’re one of those folks, you’d probably like to persuade me to change some things in my lifestyle, and in the education programs I deliver, to serve better the preservation and restoration of natural environments. I’m willing to learn. Teach me.

As for my side, let me begin by recognizing this fact about human motivation: People are going to do things for their own reasons—not mine. So, in talking raw foods to people who care about the environment, it makes sense to talk first about the environmental benefits.

First out of the chute…packaging. Cheese…ice cream…frozen peas…canned beans…sugar-frosted flakes…sliced ham…yogurt…strawberry jam…caviar…maple syrup…hot dog relish…sliced sandwich bread…pimento-stuffed olives…ground round steak…2% milk…flaked white tuna…and your Jenny Craig lo-cal chicken marsala frozen dinner…they all (almost always, for everything in this list) come packaged, in some way. And packaged. And packaged. Yes, you can claim that your modest yearly caviar consumption sends only one or two tiny tins to the landfill. And, yes, many of us have jam jars in the garage which we’ve dutifully recycled to hold nails, screws, nuts and bolts. And of course some grocery store items find their way onto shelves in relatively little packaging—a plastic pouch or bag for your sliced deli ham, mere plastic film for your hamburger, with a small gummed-paper label affixed.

Still, there are limits to at-home recycling. A friend of mine in the Toastmasters movement makes intriguing bird feeders out of gallon milk jugs, but reports he has all the jugs he can ever use, thank you very much. The average American household produces 4 pounds of garbage a day per person, the lion’s share of that in food-related waste, and even if you dutifully practice the most common forms of household recycling this will cut that waste by only a half pound per person per day.1

There are limits, too, to our self-serving claims that we’re indulging only a little in the way of packaging. Take that frozen TV dinner: a plastic tray…inside a plastic wrapper…inside a brightly colored cardboard box. Three layers, when you see it. Then add the fact that the little, individual cardboard boxes came to your supermarket in a stack of big brown cardboard boxes, that stack itself wrapped in forty or fifty linear feet of heavy-gauge cling-wrap three or four feet wide—that’s 120 to 200 square feet!—and all of that plopped on a wooden pallet.

Now, for contrast’s sake, try buying a mango…a pineapple…a peach…a pound of strawberries…a bundle of asparagus…a bunch of bananas…green onions…a grapefruit…half a pound of bean sprouts…an avocado…a few plums…a bundle of grapes…a head of red leaf lettuce…some cilantro. Is there packaging? Sure. At your basic supermarket, those strawberries will come in a plastic container, though occasionally at a supermarket, far more often at a health foods market or farmers’ market, you could pick them loose. You can buy grapefruits in a bag, but any supermarket also sells them loose. Your bean sprouts might be loose, might be bagged. And however packaging-conscious may be the store, your asparagus and onions will likely be bound in one of those paper-encased wire ties. Yes, these fruits and vegetables come in boxes, and, yes, the boxes come on pallets. But for the most part, these items have as their prime packaging the covers nature gave them. Some of these coverings we actually eat—apples, for example, peaches and grapes. Some we don’t eat—don’t know about you, but I peel my bananas. The truth about all these natural kinds of packaging is: They’re 100 percent biodegradable, every last one. If you’re a keen gardener, whether you grow vegetables, herbs, or flowers, these vegetable and fruit peelings and cores and other produce discards are perfect for composting. But even if you’re an unrepentant, indiscriminate garbage-bagger, the fact is that your vegetable and fruit peelings will do vastly less harm in the landfill than will so many other things we toss in there. Life of a peach peel in a landfill: weeks. Life of cardboard: years. Life of a tin can: decades and longer. Life of glass jars and plastic containers: not well understood, and variable, ranging from centuries onward.

No, I don’t expect to see everyone—even those who count themselves environmentalists —converting immediately to a 100 percent raw foods diet. (And not a good idea to jump that fast, anyway.) I ask you simply to consider: A can of peaches?...or a fresh, ripe, organically grown peach not far from the tree? I know which I’ll take, nutritionally. And we both know which one to grab, environmentally.

Transportation and attendant pollution is another issue we sometimes miss at the supermarket, because it’s nearly invisible. Not always, mind you. The sign says California oranges. Vidalia onions (from Georgia). Or the banana’s label says Product of Guatemala. And sometimes, signs and labels don’t reveal location at all. Either way, those things didn’t get there by magic. They got there by truck. And you know where I’m going already. Now, if you happen to live on Baffin Island, there’s not much point whining from any perspective, so just live with it: The lettuce is going to cost five dollars, and you know it burned some diesel or jet fuel getting there by ship or air. For the rest of us, though, it’s trucks. Sometime, treat yourself to a couple of days in the Memphis area—somewhere near either of the two interstates, 55 and 40. All day, all night, you’ll hear the big tractor trailers, crossing the Mississippi, pulling into and out of truck stops, overwhelmingly most of them hauling a 53-foot box trailer. You’ll try to count as they pass, but you’ll lose yourself in numbers or boredom. Something like one fourth of all American long haul trucking passes through Memphis or nearby. Those trucks do haul TVs to Nevada, drill stem to Oklahoma, and teddy bears to Connecticut. But they also, as you’ll see, carry astonishing quantities of food and drink.

Ever considered how much we pay to ship water across the country? Sometimes it’s water per se. I continue to marvel at those who turn up their noses at even the best American tap water, or juice made from local fresh fruit, and who insist on tiny three-dollar bottles of Eau de Snob imported from the Pyrenees. I no longer drink soda pop, though I used to. Next time you stock up on either brand name or generic soda, consider…How much of that is water? What’s there in the bottle or can, other than water, flavoring, and either sugar or a substitute? But consider also…How far did this have to be shipped by truck to get to me? Yes, perhaps only a couple of gallons of diesel, if the bottling plant’s just over the next hill. But sometimes, we ship water, in varied forms, hundreds of miles across the country. Then consider…Many of the heaviest things in your supermarket—cans or cases of pop, bottles of juice, cans of vegetables—are those consisting mostly of water. When we buy such products, we’re trading that water against millions of gallons of diesel fuel, and untold tonnages of carbon and other pollutants in the air.

You can’t avoid transportation cost and transportation pollution, of course. It’s a matter of minimizing. It costs—in environmental effect and in money—to get a mango to Minneapolis, or a lettuce to Lexington, and even more (thanks to the necessity of refrigerated trucks) to get a frozen dinner to Fresno. And it costs to get a carrot moved five miles from the farm to the nearest farmer’s market. But at least, when we buy locally or regionally grown produce, we can claim a little—often a lot!—less expenditure in diesel fuel, and a little less of that diesel converted to a delightfully diverse array of hydrocarbon emissions settling upon our landscapes and farms, parks and backyards.

Then, there's my third and final set of considerations—environmental costs and harms in food processing. Visit a fruit cannery, sometime—maybe in Georgia, Florida, California or the Pacific Northwest, perhaps British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley or the fruit-growing country of Southern Ontario. Take the tour. Depending on the cannery’s modernity, you’ll see greater or lesser amounts of human effort—in grading, in stacking boxes, for example. You’ll also see machines. Endless machines. Miles of spinning rollers. Rotating cappers. Conveyor belts. Plastic wrappers. Bottle washers. Can crimpers. Stackers. And sterilizers and cookers—huge things. They do different things, these machines, and all essential, given the business they’re in. One thing they all have in common is: They produce heat. Some directly, and as their purpose—that’s what cookers and sterilizers do. Some indirectly, incidentally—and that’s every other machine in the cannery, from the moving conveyor to the pop machine in the breakroom. Think especially about those processing operations which take a produce item—strawberries, say—then cook it, then freeze it, thereby doubling the energy cost. Canneries, admittedly, don’t produce especially horrid emissions, in pollution terms. But that heat, quite apart from its being released into the atmosphere, stands as the marker of a tremendous expenditure of energy. An expenditure reduced nearly to nil if you’ll take a simple expedient: Treat yourself, next time, to a fresh strawberry.

Three issues both conceptually simple and already familiar to everyone of environmentalist bent: Packaging…transportation…energy waste. For me and for others of the raw foods persuasion, yet another set of reasons to pursue our course, and to join environmentalist causes. For environmentalists, a set of reasons to think about going vegetarian, eventually going raw. And for all of us, good reasons to work together.

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1 “57 Ways to Protect Your Home Environment and Yourself.” This Land. University of Illinois Extension. http://www.thisland.illinois.edu/57ways/57ways_27.html. Consulted 28 September 2010.