Cook Like You Care: Sustainability and the Ethics of Food

Cooking Like You Care: Local, Seasonal, Sustainability and the Ethics of Food

Learning more about sustainability and the ethics of food has earned a higher slot on my list of priorities since I became vegan. A few weekends ago, when I attended Wanderlust, a yoga and music festival, in Squaw Valley, I made sure to grab a seat at a lecture titled “Cook Like You Care.”

Leading the talk was Billy McCullough, a Lake Tahoe chef and restaurateur, whose bio describes as a “pioneer of the local food movement after he discovered the environmental impact of running a successful sushi bar was far greater than he originally thought.”

During his talk, he mentioned bycatch and other awful side effects of certain fishing practices and how his newfound knowledge of this reality encouraged him to change his menu around.

It’s understandable that he experienced shock when learning of the extent to which overfishing has severely threatened endangered species as well as damaged ecosystems all over the world. Simply google the terms “overfishing” or “bycatch” and one can find an endless amount of documentation on the subject. One such source states:

“It is estimated that over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement in fishing nets each year…Hundreds of thousands of endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles drown annually on longlines set for tuna, swordfish, and other fish.”

McCullough’s discovery of the importance of sustainability in regards to seafood was just the first in a series of “epiphanies” he describes, which also included a taste test between conventional store-bought and locally grown farmer’s market tomatoes. Having recently received some home-grown tomatoes from my neighbor, I can completely identify with the argument that locally grown produce is leaps and bounds above anything purchased in big-box stores. 

But it’s not just about taste. McCullough discussed the increasingly prevalent topics of buying local and seasonal foods in regards to lessening impact on the environment and shared his experiences adopting these practices for his own restaurants. 

“We are in a rehab period.” McCullough explained. “Recovering from our abuse of technologies such as pesticides.”

After being exposed to this information about sustainability, he co-founded Slow Food Lake Tahoe for which he remains a consultant. According to their website, the mission of this organization is to “reconnect our community to the enjoyment of local, seasonal and sustainable food while educating people about their vital role as participants in our food system.” McCullough mentioned a variety of events that they hold for community outreach and education such as canning, tea making and garden workshops. 

“Simplicity is better” says McCullough who sites on the Board of The Tahoe Food Hub, which aims to connect food buyers directly to producers, saving time and money as well as and preventing waste. He also spoke frequently during his talk about the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, for which he speaks as an ambassador.

My thoughts

Much of what McCullough had to say about purchasing local and seasonal food makes a lot of sense and I can imagine anyone would be hard-pressed to find a viable argument against these practices. However, though his resume is impressive and the premise for this discussion was warranted, the event itself was disappointing, partly due to McCullough’s self-admitted lack of preparation (he had only written down a few notes earlier that morning) which I found mildly insulting and, more importantly, the narrow scope to which he limits his ethics.

While listening to the talk I found myself increasingly on edge, disturbed by the language that McCullough used, such as “growing” and “harvesting” in regards to fishes in fish farms. This topic came up frequently as he worked to rationalize promote his adoption of more “sustainable” fishing practices. The way he spoke of the changes to his business took an almost bragging tone when he proudly mentioned how he had removed certain items from his menus, despite their popularity and much to the dismay of his customers.

At this point I couldn’t help but realize a double standard inherent in McCullough’s messaging which sparked a series of questions:

Why is it celebrated to care about the unfortunate bycatch such as turtles and dolphins in the process of obtaining “seafood” while simultaneously considered ethically sound to eat other sea life?

What makes the life of one creature more valuable than another? The fact that human-kind has brought it to the brink of extinction and we now want to preserve its existence for the purely selfish satisfaction of being able to continue eating it?

Is it truly ever sustainable to eat animals?

Why was McCullough so inspired by the idea of sustainability but only able to grasp the concept to the extent that he can brandish the term when promoting his restaurants?

Colleen Patrick-Goudreau may have captured this confused frustration perfectly in her eloquent and thought-provoking article, Dishing Out the Bull: The Rise of the Excuse-itarians:

“Though I agree with the need to support local farmers and educate the public about the corporate take-over of our food supply, I worry sometimes that the proponents of the “sustainable/humane meat” philosophy are going to hurt themselves patting each other on the back. Despite the fact that they’re responsible for the needless killing of animals, who, if given the choice, would choose to live, they’re lauded for their “ethical eating.” I wonder: if it’s considered ethical to eat the bodies of animals who are harmed a little less before their throats are slit, isn’t it still more ethical to not end their lives at all?”

While McCullough is involved in continuing a very important discussion and helping to bring awareness to issues about sustainability, his message does is not come without its shortcomings. And though small changes are better than none, congratulating ourselves for one action while continuing contradictory behaviors seems to be punching holes in the boat. My hope is that as the conversation about the ethics of food continues, people will see through red herrings such as these in order to make more aware and all-encompassing choices.

What are your thoughts on sustainability? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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