Sunday, April 13, 2008

I'm not dead yet...

...just not been blogging lately.

I turned in my written qualifier exam last week, which was what was taking up the majority of my life until that point. I also got back page proofs for the encyclopedia article I wrote with my advisor; those are due back next week. I've filled out my taxes, and gotten a good portion of the way through preparing my oral presentation on my thesis project, so I've got a bit of a breather.

Today I found myself dealing with way too much information on a different front. I went grocery shopping, which I'm beginning to understand is a dangerous thing to do if you're well read in terms of ecology, health, and international relations.

For instance, let's look at the produce I bought.

I eat a lot of fruit, and for reasons I don't feel like going into at the moment I was limiting myself on fruit for the past couple of weeks, so I really wanted to buy some today. Because I'm the sort to overanalyze things, I ended up considering:

Is it better to buy fruit crops from Latin America or from greenhouses in the US? It's April in MI, and thus most fruit is not yet in season--our big local fruit harvests are mid summer (cherries) and fall (apples and pears), with some berries throughout the summer. When contemplating the blackberries on sale this week, I noted that they're from Ecuador, which presumably means that they've been transported a longer distance (higher CO2 emissions) and were grown under higher pesticide concentrations, which may remain stable in the water supply. Conversely, they were also grown in a climate more amenable to berry production in the first place, and probably required much less in the way of added fertilizers, and if they were farmed in large scale projects their harvesting efficiency is probably much better than in the small scale operations typical of most seemingly progressive farming. Then there's the consideration of whether this provides an economic incentive for licit agriculture in a region where workers will clearly switch to coca production if nothing else is economically viable, whether my purchase of a foreign farm product is lowering the long term economic viability of domestic farm production, whether or not that effect on domestic farm production is inherently a net bonus or a net negative, and whether I'm influencing the demand for migrant farm labor that is increasingly comprised of illegal immigrants. And then there's the consideration of whether since immigrants are, in general, harder working than people who stay in their native country (because they're willing to sacrifice so much for the perceived benefit for their children) which group it's better to reward.

And all of that is without even addressing the question of whether it would be better ecologically to buy fresh versus frozen berries, given the energy cost in the freezing process and transport in refrigerated conveyance.

Lest someone be tempted to tell me to go to a farmer's market--well, the local ones aren't open yet, and even if they were, the impact of the gas needed to get to the farmer's market might overpower any ecological benefit going could reap. Perhaps going would be able to reap other economic benefits, and the social benefits that changing economics of supply and demand would entail, but that's not terribly clear either.

Similarly, it took about 10 minutes to find a loaf of bread which wasn't horrendously expensive, was made of whole grains, and didn't contain high fructose corn syrup. That's less for health reasons (my metabolism is just fine with a large component of high fructose corn syrup in my diet) than it is my relatively insignificant economic protest against a farm bill which makes high fructose corn syrup more profitable for agribusiness than crops designed to be eaten as whole crops.

Then I got into considerations about recycling when it came time to buy something to drink. I recycle both plastic and aluminum, and in some ways I very much support deposits on cans and bottles to encourage their recycling. But given that I've got a recycling truck coming by my house once a week anyway, it seems a bit silly to care about getting things that I need to take back to the store. Also, while aluminum cans end with more packaging than do plastic bottles, aluminum recycling is less energy intensive and recovers a higher yield of the aluminum in the first place. Then again, the cardboard that the aluminum comes in is something the city only sometimes picks up--otherwise I need to drive it to the drop off center for cardboard recycling, which I admit I do rarely more because it's something of a pain than because it's better to wait until I've got a full load, as it's not on my way to anything.

Then there was the issue of bagging. I've got a set of canvas bags which I take shopping with me, so I don't have to rely on paper or plastic bags--it's one of those rare times when the responsible decision actually is clear. However, with the way self checkout tends to work, it's much more of a pain to use my own bags than the store bags, as the weight sensors will think I'm trying to steal something if I just put the empty canvas bag on the pad before I start scanning things. I usually end up having to stack the food on the sensors, pay, and then put it all in my bags, which makes me take more time than the average customer and slow down everyone else. Today, though, I bagged in paper (which is actually worse in terms of CO2 than plastic--the higher transport costs overmatch the sustainability arguments) inside my canvas ones. I've got some yard waste to get rid of, and the city will only take it if I put it in paper bags. I ended up getting dirty looks from a couple of customers, perhaps because they thought I was just posing at being responsible.

If this is what trying to be an informed, conscious shopper entails, I can see why most people aren't. It's a lot more work and a lot more time than simply grabbing what's on sale. I have a hard time imagining that I'd be willing to put this much time and thought into my grocery shopping if I had children, or was worried that my company might have another round of layoffs at any time, or any of the many other reasons most consumers aren't going to care where their fruit came from.

No comments: