Eating was once an enjoyable, relatively uncomplicated experience; the biggest dilemma was how much butter to put in the mashed potatoes. No more. In this post-Pollan, Food, Inc., locavore-aware world, your dinner plate, like it or not, is a minefield. Beyond the enduring concerns about calories, artificial ingredients, and, of course, taste, there are now a host of politically minded food anxieties. Is the chicken free-range? Is the salad from a labor-friendly farm? Was the coffee shade-grown? Sometimes it seems the future of the planet is riding on your hamburger. While it’s wise (and often delicious!) to maintain a healthy skepticism about too much food-correctness, it’s not a bad idea to do your part where you can. On the pages that follow, you’ll find seventeen foods that experts say are among the most politically problematic, from corn-fed methane-emitting cattle to trawler-caught monkfish, along with a selection of lower-impact, less guilt-inducing alternatives. Don’t want to do all that thinking (or cooking) yourself? In “Green Cuisine” you’ll find five places you can go where someone else has made your (relatively) guilt-free choices for you.
The Food: Shrimp
The issue: The finger food of the seafood world is now linked to destruction of local habitat, particularly mangroves, and high levels of pollution in Latin America and Asia, where much of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is obtained. Sustainable-seafood guru and Fish Without a Doubt co-author Rick Moonen calls modern shrimping “one of the least efficient operations ever.”
The fix: Wild-caught pink shrimp from Oregon is harvested with a more ecofriendly trawling system and is certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. “Wild-caught spot prawns from Santa Barbara are also fine,” says Harbour’s executive chef, Anthony Fusco. “There are some great companies out of the Gulf that produce wonderful, never-frozen shrimp.” The Lobster Place carries fresh Gulf shrimp.
The Food: Red Snapper
The issue: Red snapper is a red flag on pretty much every marine watch list out there. It’s been overfished in the Gulf of Mexico, and the numbers continue to fall.
The fix: Gray or Hawaiian pink snapper, which, according to Fusco, fits the bill for sustainability. “These fish have very little variation from what you’re used to in a Gulf red snapper,” he says, meaning flaky flesh and medium consistency. New Zealand farmed pink snapper is available at Citarella.
The Food: Chilean Sea Bass
The issue: Chilean sea bass grow slowly and don’t reproduce until late in their lives, making them vulnerable to overfishing, and the species’ trendy popularity in recent years hasn’t helped.
The fix: Eat locally caught wild striped bass, which is particularly excellent this time of year. The Lobster Place has bass from Massachusetts; Long Island striped bass is available at Blue Moon Fish at the Greenmarket.
The Food: Tuna
The issue: Most tuna, including yellowfin, bigeye, and bluefin, come from foreign waters, where overfishing is decimating the population (bluefin is now an endangered species). There are health problems, too; larger tunas’ size and long life span mean they accumulate mercury and PCBs.
The fix: Buy domestic yellowfin tuna from Hawaii (pole-caught yellowfin from the Atlantic is good, too), where populations are sustainably caught, or smaller albacore from the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia, comparatively well-run fisheries. Pole-caught yellowfin and albacore are available at the Lobster Place; local pole-caught is at the Greenmarket.
The Food: Monkfish
The issue: Monkfish is just starting to recover from years of overfishing, but the trouble doesn’t end there. It’s caught by bottom trawling, which harms the ocean floor and has high bycatch (accidental death of other marine life). “Monkfish is one of the worst,” says Fusco. “It’s slow to mature, and 70 percent goes to waste; people eat just the tail.”
The fix: Monkfish’s steaky density is what makes us love it, and that’s hard to replace. Fusco recommends farmed sturgeon from the West Coast, or silver hake. California sturgeon and North Atlantic silver hake are available at the Lobster Place; small quantities of whiting hake show up in September at Blue Moon Fish at the Greenmarket.
Meat & Dairy
The Food: Beef
The issue: You could fill a book with the transgressions of Big Beef—just ask Michael Pollan. Briefly: Most cattle are bred on large farms and fed industrial corn, which damages land, requires huge amounts of energy to harvest, and increases the cattles’ methane emissions.
The fix: Look for the words “Grass-Fed” on packaging; it indicates the animals are fed on grass, forbs (like legumes), or cereal-grain crops— all with lower carbon-emission levels than corn production. Reliable grass-fed growers include New York Beef Co. and Hawthorne Valley Farm, both at the Inwood and Union Square Greenmarkets.
The Food: Pork
The issue: Not quite as bad as beef on the carbon-footprint scale, but the “other white meat” also feeds on industrial corn, with all its incumbent problems.
The fix: As with beef, free-roaming pork helps cut down on carbon emissions. Mary Cleaver, owner of the eco-sensitive catering company the Cleaver Co., recommends local farm Flying Pigs. Retail sources like Marlow & Daughters and Dickson’s Farmstand, whose shop opens in the Chelsea Market in September, also specialize in sustainable pork.
The Food: Chicken & Eggs
The issue: While carbon emissions are considerable, the biggest concern may be animal cruelty, with chickens being kept in tiny cages (the United Egg Producers mandates 67 square inches per hen, less than an 8-by-11 sheet of paper) and beak trimming to keep them from pecking each other.
The fix: Go with local farms like Violet Hill and Windfall to cut down on the chances of factory-style cruelty. At the grocery store, look for organic free-range birds or the certified humane stamp on eggs, which signifies the hens have more cage space.
The Food: Milk
The issue: Same as beef; carbon emissions, animal cruelty. Locally, Dean Foods has a near monopoly, which has squeezed out smaller producers.
The fix: Buy from small family farmers, of which there are many: Milk Thistle Organic Dairy, Evans Farmhouse Creamery, and Ronnybrook are all available either at Murray’s Cheese or at various Greenmarkets. Or try goat’s milk (smaller animals=smaller carbon footprint), or soy or rice milks.Produce
The Food: Bananas
The issue: Very, very not locavore, and not winning any stars for labor practices, either. Add to that the banana industry’s notorious use of pesticides harmful to both workers and land.
The fix: Unless you live in the tropics and grow them in your backyard, there is no local or sustainable banana. Consider getting your potassium from apples, which are in season and abundant at all the big-name grocery stores from July through October.
The Food: Soy
The issue:You thought it was healthy. Soy is overgrown, generally highly sprayed, and the USDA reports that it has more acreage dedicated to genetically modified plants than any other domestic crop.
The fix: Finding soy products with the USDA-certified organic label—meaning they can’t contain genetic modifications—is easy, since it includes widely available products like WestSoy Organic Milk (Pathmark and Whole Foods) and Nasoya Organic Tofu (A&P and Whole Foods).
The Food: Tomatoes
The issue: Primarily labor. The price for a 32-pound bucket, currently an average of 45 cents, hasn’t been raised significantly since 1978. The average salary for a tomato picker in the U.S. is a numbing $10,000 to $12,000 per year.
The fix: Buy only during tomato season, from July through October, and buy from smaller farms in the Northeast, which tend to pay fairer wages than the big industrial guys in Florida and Mexico. Two big names in the local tomato world: Eckerton Hill Farm and Stokes Farm (both are at the Union Square Greenmarket).
The Food: Lettuce
The issue: Lettuce is a water-hungry crop, but much of what’s in stores is grown in California and Arizona where getting adequate irrigation can be problematic.
The fix: Again, buy local and seasonal (from May through October) from farms like Gorzynski Ornery and Keith’s Farm, available at Union Square Market. The Northeast is plenty wet for lettuce-growing and our climate supports many varieties. If you’re buying out of season, pick a head grown east of the Mississippi River.
Drinks & Sweets
The Food: Wine and Champagne
The issue: Those bottles are heavy (from 3 pounds up to 4 pounds for the 750 ml Champagne and sparkling wine bottles), and trucking them across the country guzzles carbon.
The fix: Drink French. Or Chilean, or even Australian—any wine shipped by water, a greener transportation method. Lightest, and therefore best: boxed wine. Try Black Box Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Spain’s Yellow +Blue Rosé at Astor Wines, or France’s From The Tank Côtes du Rhône, at Alphabet City Wine Co.
The Food: Coffee
The issue: Because Third-World farmers often aren’t paid living wages, and thus can’t afford to grow crops sustainably, most brands of beans come with a bagload of environmental problems like rainforest-clearing, methane gas (used to speed drying) and fertilizer pollution.
The fix: Look for shade-grown (grown under the existing rain-forest canopy); beans that are “dry-processed” to conserve water and energy; and Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance seals, which indicate better labor conditions in countries of origin. Franny’s owner Francine Stephens likes the Queens roaster Dallis Coffee, available at Whole Foods.
The Food: Sugar
The issue: Dessert is the best part of the meal, but… There are child-labor concerns in sugar cane producing El Salvador and Philippines, and a WWF report found sugar may be the top environmental offender of all crops due to widespread chemical use in farming, land clearing, and waste from fertilizer runoff.
The fix: Organic sugars are far less damaging to the environment; Fair Trade–endorsed sugars ensure better conditions for workers and the land. Wholesome Sweeteners gets high marks for using its spent cane to generate electricity for the mills. It’s sold at The Food Emporium, Gristedes, and Fairway.
The Food: Chocolate
The issue: On top of concerns about the clearing and polluting of rainforest land to create room for cocoa fields, most cocoa is grown in poor areas of Ghana, Brazil and the Ivory Coast, where workers (and in the Ivory Coast that sometimes includes children) are often paid below subsistence levels.
The fix: Buy chocolate that’s shade-grown with a Fair Trade seal. Bklyn Larder in Park Slope stocks shade-grown brands, such as Askinosie.