Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate the food we eat. As well as current issues, the historical context is quite fascinating.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in the "New World" 500 years ago, he introduced what we now call "globalization." For the first time in human history, virtually all parts of the world came in contact with each other. The voyages of Columbus launched a massive global movement of peoples, cultures, plants, animals and diseases.
This interaction — which has been called the "Columbian Exchange" — dramatically altered lifestyles and landscapes everywhere. Among the changes: aboriginal people in the Americas started using horses; people in Europe started smoking tobacco; people in Asia started cooking with chili peppers. More: smallpox and malaria spread to the New World; syphilis to the Old.
Foods travelled the globe. Many foods became so commonplace in their new locations that we can easily forget that they first came from other continents. Like potatoes in Ireland, chocolate in Switzerland, tomatoes in Italy, coffee in Colombia, or wheat in Canada. (In addition to "Canadian" wheat, we could add barley, canola, flax, oats, and rye all came from Asia).
Traditionally, foods associated with Thanksgiving are native to the New World. Think of the foods in the Thanksgiving cornucopia or in the Thanksgiving supper. These all originated in the Americas: potatoes, corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potato, pumpkin, cranberries and turkey.
The Columbian Exchange is still going on. People everywhere continue to seek out new foods and new ways of doing things. Consider foods your family might be eating now that you weren’t just a few years ago. Or new foods now available in Westman grocery stores and restaurants.
One example is quinoa, a grain-like plant that provides both nutritious food and also income for small farmers. First cultivated in South America, it is now grown worldwide. To focus attention on the many benefits of this crop, the United Nations has declared 2013 the "International Year of Quinoa."
Questions arise about our globalized food system. How can we get the best food that nourishes us, our communities and sustainability in the world?
Our actions do have consequences, often unintended. For instance, the increased popularity of quinoa has driven up the price. Higher prices are good news for struggling South American farmers, but bad news for poor consumers there.
But how much should we even use foods grown far away? Should we not instead look locally, like in the "100-Mile Diet"?
Certainly we in Westman can enjoy the fresh food and friendliness of a farmers’ market or Community Shared Agriculture program. But what about the larger picture?
On this topic, I like the approach of Tyler Cowen, an American economist and food enthusiast. His latest book is "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies."
One chapter in the book is "Eating Your Way to a Greener Planet." Inspired by Cowen, here are eight suggestions for consumers, cooks and citizens:
1. Develop a global perspective. Cowen points out that ocean shipping is very efficient; transportation is often a small part of the total energy used to get food from the farm to us.
2. "Make virtuous behaviour more fun." Cowen advises, for example, cultivating a taste for sardines and oysters, which he says are plentiful, nutritious and have a low environmental impact.
3. Eat less meat. Producing meat usually requires lots of energy. Even one meat-free day a week can save as much energy as eating all locally sourced food.
4. Eat less junk food. These have a high environmental impact.
5. Minimize car shopping trips. Driving to the store can be a significant part of the energy used in the food chain.
6. Limit food waste. Remember the "Three Rs" of waste reduction. As in, Reduce: buy only what you can use. Reuse: save leftovers for another meal. Recycle: where possible, compost food waste like coffee grounds, scraps and peels.
7. Become an advocate. Changes are needed at the governmental level. Among Cowen’s recommendations: a carbon tax to encourage more energy efficiency in the food system. Also: laws requiring that animals "be raised and slaughtered under more humane conditions."
8. Eat with awareness and enjoyment. Continually look for ways to improve food choices. In the meantime, appreciate and be grateful for the foods we have.
» David McConkey is an active citizen. Contact him and read previous columns at davidmcconkey.com.