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Moving from stew to stewardship: eating sustainably in 2012

Moving from stew to stewardship: eating sustainably in 2012

It used to be so simple. Buy or harvest food, cook food, enjoy food.

That is probably an oversimplification – food has always been political, as anyone familiar with the history of sugar or bananas knows, but it seems that now its politics have entered the mainstream, and that with the rate of our economic development, its politics have become more urgent.

In this politicised environment, hosting a dinner party becomes an exercise in diplomacy and a test of how many dietary restrictions one cook can accommodate. You’ll have people who eat white meat but not red, vegetarians who prefer not to eat tofu, those who are lactose intolerant, and people who prefer their bananas organic – and that’s just if you’ve invited me and my roommate for a meal.

How did it become this way? What does eating ethically and sustainably look like in 2012? How do we balance a desire to eat sustainably with a desire to respect cultural attitudes toward food?

Growing up with dinner in the backyard

Food at its most basic exists as sustenance, but it also a powerful part of culture. Many religious rituals centre on food or refraining from eating it, from the Christian breaking of bread, to the Jewish Passover Seder, to Islam’s Ramadan. And religion aside, what would any wedding or gathering of family be without a meal to bring people together?

My brothers and I were forbidden from telling our younger sister that this guy would end up on our plates. (Jane Smith)

Food was important to my upbringing. As a child, the vegetables I ate were from the garden, and the steak on my plate came from the pasture behind our house. (One year my mom christened the bovine my dad chose to be butchered “Stu,” as stew was his ultimate fate.)

I wear this history on my skin. Years ago, I caught my arm on one of the barbs of the barbed wire fence that pens the cattle in. The scar remains there today, my agricultural roots  tattooed on my body.

We all have powerful memories associated with food. Learning to cook from our mothers. The first time cooking for a partner. Experiencing the hospitality of those with far too little yet always enough to share a meal.

Facing our upside-down food system

Yet as many of us know, food is much more than our culture and our upbringing. Sadly, much in our food system perpetuates inequality, drives unsustainable growth, and harms our environment.

Here are a couple of facts about food and our food system that continue to boggle my mind:

Pippa Black in a dress made of leaves
As all vegetarians do, I own a dress made of leaves but I generally save it for special occasions. (PETA Asia-Pacific)

When looking at these figures, and taking into account other concerns about health and animal rights,  it’s no surprise that new dietary habits like eating local and vegetarianism are becoming more common, and they’re making their way beyond environmentalists and food activists. (Although there are those who challenge the focus on agricultural productivity when discussing food security.)

I gave up meat four years ago, initially making an exception for the cattle raised on my family’s farm, but then giving that up too. (My family is very proud of me.)

It’s become a point of connection with others, providing instant affinity with other vegetarians.

Yet when a vegetarian colleague, who has previously had postings Tajikistan, Congo, and other far-flung places across the world, told me she used to decline meat from Tajiks and Congolese, I was taken aback. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way – is it rude to  refuse such hospitality, even with the best of reasons?

And if so, then why is it okay for me to refuse such hospitality from my family?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I feel the tension between wanting to eat sustainably and wanting to respect and partake in others’ (and even my own) culture.

Tensions at the intersection of food, culture and sustainability

My own complicated relationship with food illustrates the difficulties of untangling the personal and political aspects of food. While I haven’t had meat in years, I can’t quite bring myself to completely sell my (much more symbolic than lucrative) shares in the family farm.

I remember cold nights spent bottle-feeding newborn calves in the barn with one of my brothers, the way the cattle would lift their heads from grazing and run towards my dad at the sound of his voice, and the memorable times the cows broke free from the pasture and traipsed through our vegetable garden, and I can’t bring myself to sever ties with this.

Yet in the future we may have to, collectively as a society. Our rate of economic development may make meat a thing of the past (or a thing of test tubes), and there are many other elements of our food system that need to change.

While I understand that, I still wonder about the impact on cultures, on traditions, on families.

So I’ll keep holding onto my shares in the family farm even as I decline its meat, and I’ll continue to think about these tensions every time I make myself a lentil burger or pass on the roast my family is having.


What is your relationship with food like?


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Allison Smith

Allison is a freelance writer and communications professional. She is a contributor to Beacon, and her work has been published in Matador, Killing the Buddha, and In/Words Magazine & Press. She currently lives in Cambodia. For more Allison, visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

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6 thoughts on “Moving from stew to stewardship: eating sustainably in 2012

  1. […] first stop Cambodia, is even more poorly-received by my English, beef-farming parents than when I became a vegetarian, or when I mentioned I had dated a Quebec […]

  2. Food is such a complicated topic in our (US/Canada) society. Sometimes the ethics of food brings up too many questions and conflicting answers. Is soy good for you; which is better, local meat or foreign vegetarian products; does mass produced organic food help the environment; is bacon unhealthy; should I eat when I know others don’t have food? It almost becomes paralyzing for me. I grew up as a vegetarian and now I eat meat, although I still don’t like the flavor of beef and so I don’t eat it. I appreciate the thought-provoking post, even if I didn’t come away with any new answers.

  3. Thanks for this. I like being confronted with something that we take for granted that forces a reevaluation. My relationship with food is a bit like that – I’m a vegetarian, but for no other reason than it “works” for me. There are many good reasons – of which eating sustainably is one – though none of them specifically strike my heartstrings, if you will.
    That makes these ethical questions a tad more difficult. When in Uzbekistan, was it a good idea to refuse all their meat and subsist on olive oil and bread? I’m not sure, but I did it anyway. Whether it qualifies as rude or not is a different thing – certain friends have been vegetarian their whole life and if they eat meat, they get sick. Simple. Is that still rude?
    At the end of the day, my bottom line is “each to their own”. Like Jessica, I think it’s always been a complex issue, and I just prefer not to engage in it too much.

    1. I can identify, Shaz – while in this post I’ve highlighted the sustainability reasons for being vegetarian, I’m never quite sure how to respond to people when they ask why I’m vegetarian, because while it’s part about sustainability, it’s also about health, and then there’s also the fact that I don’t really like many types of meat. As you say – vegetarianism “works” for me, and reducing it to one particular issue is a bit simplistic, which is unsurprising given the very personal nature of eating.

  4. Hi Alison, what a great piece! I have a really similar story – I also grew up on a farm and am now a vegetarian .. and still have dilemmas about when I should and shouldn’t accept meat as a guest (including in my family’s own home where I am still served meat because they can’t fathom why I wouldn’t eat it!) Working with Hunger Free World in Bangladesh last year also opened a whole new can of worms in my stomach over which food to eat, how much of it and the ethical consequences of doing so.. To me, food politics have not so much ‘become’ mainstream – these choices always were at the heart of our political and ethical compasses, and it’s so great that more people are acknowledging that and having a conversation about it.

    1. Thanks Jessica. It is great that more people are acknowledging and discussing the ethics of their food choices – I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the topic seems to come up more and more among friends, family and colleagues.

      My family has been incredibly accommodating and there are always alternate vegetarian dishes when I visit my parents, but my dad still likes to send me communications job postings for organisations like the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association! Ah family….

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