Attitudes towards food are becoming the new religion. In our godless times, devotees of the old faiths have been replaced by irrational believers, dietary evangelists and superstitious consumers – the meat-free eaters! But is converting to vegetarianism enough to purge your sins? Being an ethical veggie is not as easy as one would think says René Blixer.
When Jonathan Safran Foer’s veggie treatise Eating Animals hit bookstores in 2009, it generated massive buzz in hipster quarters, where vegetarianism has long resonated. From Brooklyn to Neukölln, more and more alternative urbanites took up the cause of animal welfare and the environment, swapping döners for veggie burgers on their late night fast-food run.
But when these budget-crunched herbivores stock up on food, looking for ethical (read: fair trade and organic) labels is easily pushed aside by the naïvely righteous mantra, “I’m ethical, I don’t eat meat”.
“I’m a guilty eater,” says Kirstin, a newbie to Berlin who gave up meat after reading Foer’s book. “I feel guilty eating meat. But when I don’t, I feel like I’m not even always sure I’m being a better person. I still eat butter and milk,” says the 26-year-old, who also confesses to short-lived relapses.
And Kirstin enjoys her tomato-mozzarella grilled sandwich, frozen pizza and eggs at her local Sunday brunch. Organic food? “Sometimes, when they have something I like at Netto…”
Kirstin is one of the 6 million vegetarians in Germany who has taken a tiny step towards leading a more ethical life. But how ethical is it to buy eggs and cheese if you care about animal welfare?
The morbid truth
“Let’s face it, being a vegetarian still means death,” says Kathryn Werntz, founder of The Dickes Bee Food Cooperative in Berlin and consultant for Fairtrade International. “If you eat cheese or drink milk, you have to face up to the fact that tonnes of animals are dying for you,” says the cheerful, free-spirited New Jersey native. Dairy farms can’t afford to keep unproductive males, so they systematically slaughter them. It is a reality most vegetarians – let alone carnivores – are unaware of.
Werntz herself became a vegetarian at 18, mainly “out of compassion for animals”. Today, after years of informing herself about the on-the-ground reality of the food business – she even worked on a PhD on “food systems”– she today defines herself as 99 percent vegan.
“Even really sustainable, humane small farms, they just can’t keep the males. If you can’t face up to this simple fact, you shouldn’t eat cheese!” she says with a giggle, adding that her boyfriend has been slowly converting to veganism after visiting local cheese farms with her. “Like many other vegetarians, he just had no idea!”
Werntz says she often meets with vegetarians who think they ‘get it all’ – but know so little! “To become a vegetarian is great: it means you’ve started thinking about food. But it’s only one step on a long, learning journey.”
The quirky ethical foodie created the Dickes Bee food co-op last February on the strong belief that Berliners deserve access to good, local food. “One night I was fighting a cold and freezing my German-landed patooty off, and I was mad I couldn’t be steaming up a fresh batch of tasty, nutrient-packed mangold chard, since the local bio store only had pathetic-looking dark leafy veggies shipped from abroad.” A few months later, Dickes Bee was born.
“Consuming dairy and eggs means exploitation and indirect death to animals,” chimes in Doreen Rothe of the animal rights association Berlin Vegan. In short, if you eat cheap eggs you might as well go for chicken.
Male chicks can’t lay eggs and don’t grow large or quickly enough to be raised profitably for meat. That results in the killing of 40 million day-old male chicks a year in the EU alone (usually in a high-speed grinder called a macerator).
Rothe and her cohort Till Strecker support the initial measures taken by vegetarians like Kirstin, but: “We try and take another step towards an even more ethical way of life by adopting a strict animal-product-free diet.”
Through their Veggie Parade, annual summer fest and Berlin Vegan Iphone app, they argue that veganism is not only fun but tasty and convenient too. This year alone, five vegan restaurants and one vegan supermarket have opened in Berlin.
The tofu snafu
A single product – soy – comes with a host of complex issues. “You can make so many amazing meals and products from soy alone!” says Rothe. That is, provided you know where your soy comes from – and you don’t rely on the tofu served at your cheap Asian Imbiss.
“Tofu freaks me out,” confesses Werntz. I used to eat it a lot at first, and I guess it is a good transition food. But it is very processed and even its packaging is an environmental disaster. Plus the overuse of soy as animal feed is already problematic. Farmers are encouraged to jump on detrimental monocultures through subsidies.”
Although you might be able to avoid genetically modified (GM) tofu by inspecting labels (not banned in the EU, GM soy must be specified on the package), you’re unlikely to find out what goes into the green curry at your local Thai.
Martin Hausding of Greenpeace Germany chimes in: “Soy grows well in tropical temperatures, thereby causing deforestation in the Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests, but it’s important to know that 90 percent of the soy grown in these areas is used as cattle feed.”
Yet what would happen if we all converted to tofu? An additional problem with soy is that it hides in the composition of many products from crackers to Nutella, and its origin can hardly ever be traced.
The hidden cost of bananas
Another veggie-vegan staple, rice, comes with its own environmental baggage. Flooded Asian rice paddies emit methane, which has 21 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the greenhouse gas (also produced by belching livestock) contributes to global warming damage on a scale that eclipses coal-fired power plants, vehicle fumes and other sources of carbon dioxide.
Although new rice farming techniques developed in China are reducing methane emissions, the carbon footprint of shipping rice around the world isn’t so great either. High export levels also have a negative impact on the price of rice in poor countries that need the crop to feed their populations.
What about other typical vegan treats, like bananas? The mass-scale production of the fruit is linked to a catalogue of social and environmental nightmares. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica generations of underpaid banana workers have suffered from illnesses (from respiratory problems to cancer and sterility) induced by the pesticides and chemicals used on plantations.
On top of that come pesticide contamination, soil erosion and deforestation. Shouldn’t ‘ethical’ eaters look beyond just animal welfare and give a thought to the impact of their choices on the lives of people and the societies they live in?
The bio credo
So, banishing all animal products from your plate may not be enough to salvage your soul. For Hausding, a converted vegetarian himself, the solution is simple: “Buy organic!”
In Germany, bio-certified products are stamped with various seals according to a checklist of standards. The minimum common denominator: your soy or banana should be free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and GMOs. Some labels such as Bioland and Demeter implement the best animal welfare and environmental standards. “They are the purest products,” confirms Hausding.
But how reliable are the mass-produced bio products found at discounter chains such as Netto, Lidl or Aldi? How ecologically correct can the organic ginger imported from China really be?
“On the one hand,” says Werntz, “I guess it brings awareness. Shoppers see them and might start thinking about it. On the other hand they stand for and promote everything that’s wrong about the ‘big food monster’,” she says referring to the global food business and agrochemical corporations.
For Werntz of Dickes Bees, organic is only part of the equation. The co-op abides by the following mantra: local, organic (90 percent), fair trade.
“Organic means nothing about sustainability, compassion or actual awareness. A vegan label on food says nothing about environmental, social, financial treatment, sustainability or fairness – it just means no direct animal product is in it,” Werntz says. “You have to ask yourself what kind of farmers and food systems you are supporting.”
Why buy supermarket honey from Latin America when you can find four or five delicious types straight from Berlin or Brandenburg beekeepers? At Netto, the Biobio-label honey comes from “non EU countries” and, like most supermarket bio products, tracing its origins is almost impossible.
In stark contrast, the Dickes Bee crew take great strides to scout regional, certified family farms, meet farmers, scope out the land and check out animal welfare conditions in search of the purest products.
Werntz believes food should be sourced as locally as possible from identifiable and trusted farmers with whom she or a “fellow Bee” has direct, personal contact.
The co-op has grown to 60 members working together with farmers to provide a weekly supply of grains, flours, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and, since this month, cheese, with eggs next on the list.
Although the co-op is mainly vegan, they’ve made room for goat cheese: “I think goats have it better than cows!” says Werntz, who followed her own know-your food credo as far as to sample the new goat Camembert: “Freaking fantastic!” was the verdict.
Getting ‘ethical’ eggs is proving more difficult, says Werntz, who is about to visit one purveyor she has high hopes for. “On the phone they told me we should come at 2pm, when the chickens are not yet sleeping – which already proves they respect their natural biorhythm – and there’s no artificial light. A good sign!”
Know the source
Not all products can be obtained regionally, and that’s when Werntz’ MacGyver-esque techniques come in handy: “We still all like our coffee, tea or chocolate.”
The food co-op purchases, for example, chocolate from a fair-trade Brussels confectioner who hand-makes his products based on an old Mayan tradition. The chocolatier gave Werntz the contact details for the cocoa bean farmer, and she followed up to make sure the trade is legitimate.
In this difficult moral trade-off, the closest is not always ideal.
“What’s worse,” asks Werntz, “the carbon footprint of your veggies, or a local food company dealing with [US herbicide and GM-crop corporation] Monsanto? I don’t think mangos should be grown in Germany. It’s also good for Burkina Faso to be able to have its small share of the world market – as long as you can ensure that the farmers on the ground do too.” Hence, her strict adherence to fair trade.
Pay the price
Of course, eating ethically has its price. Although they pay no membership fee, all members of the food co-op must work a minimum of three hours a month.
A kilo of local organic carrots from a Dickes Bee farmer costs €1.42 compared to Netto’s Biobio carrots for 88 cents. Dickes Bee local organic honey costs €4.73 for 500g, compared to €2.99 for the Netto (“non-EU”) equivalent. Dickes Bee fair trade ground coffee is €8.25 per 500g, to Netto’s €4.59 Biobio coffee.
“It all comes down to a moral decision between a sustainable, fair life and penny pinching,” insists Werntz. “I just cannot stand the economic argument – I lived below the official poverty line in the US for almost five years without getting welfare and still managed to at least buy organic fruits and veggies (when in season locally) and tried to buy non-GM rice!”
Try your best
A strict vegetarian, Werntz is no anti-meat fanatic: “I always thought if I didn’t marry a vegan, it would have to be a hunter!” For her, it’s all about accountability. “Many of our members eat meat and fish.” Her cats too. “That’s where I’m pretty unethical and lazy. I’d love to say they survive on fish from Usedom but right now, it’s just organic cat food and tuna!”
Even the purest souls among us don’t go sinless. She also confesses that, once in a while, she indulges in her favourite vegetarian fast food, W-Imbiss on Kastanienallee. I can’t ask them where their food comes from. I’m scared – I like it too much!”
Ultimately “ethical” is far more complex than meat or no meat. Werntz’ eating credo is pretty simple: “It’s not just our food system that needs to be more responsible; it’s the lifestyle. It’s knowing where your stuff comes from, thinking rationally, fighting the battles and making the changes you can from the ground.”
Deep into our late-capitalist hangover, when indignant youth flamboyantly take to the street to contest “the system”, real protest against brutal, greedy capitalism could start on your plate!