Sustainable food is a luxury, but an environmentally justified one

Two days ago, Sam Heller denounced sustainable food as a “luxury good” to which a “bogus moral component” has been attached (“YSFP meals impress, but at great expense,” 10/2). He writes that “eating sustainable food does not make you a humanitarian.” I agree. This is akin to saying that eating a hamburger does not make you an animal hater. On an individual level, food choice is rarely a definitive statement of moral identity.

But change the above statement to “serving sustainable food does not make Yale a humanitarian institution,” and I wholeheartedly disagree. Sustainable food’s moral component is far from bogus, and while food choices may not define us as individuals, institutional choices on the scale of the Yale Sustainable Food Project make a strong moral statement. Although sustainable food is indeed a luxury, Yale’s continued support of the project is most importantly a sign of the University’s commitment to improving both human and ecological welfare.

Humanitarianism is intrinsic to the definition of sustainable food. Although “sustainable” can seem like a fuzzy concept, sustainable agriculture is in fact defined by law. In 1990, the federal government defined sustainable agriculture in Public Law 101-624 as “plant and animal production … that will, over the long term, satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”

In this context, consider the ethical implications of that YSFP icon, the grass-fed burger. Unlike their grass-fed cousins, most beef cattle live in fenced-in feedlots and eat commodity corn raised with nitrogen-rich fertilizers. Non-renewable fossil fuels are consumed to produce the fertilizers, which contribute to the production of NO, a greenhouse gas that catalyzes the destruction of ozone. Fertilizer runoff also spurs algae bloom in aquatic ecosystems, resulting in “dead zones” where oxygen levels are too low to sustain life. Every year, Midwestern corn farms produce a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of the state of Connecticut.

And those are just the fertilizers that grow the corn to feed the cattle. I don’t have space to ponder the diseases due to overcrowding, or the sickness from the corn they did not evolve to eat or the beef tallow and poultry flesh that supplement the corn.

Grass, by contrast, doesn’t require fertilizer. And grass-fed steers, which have plenty of space and eat what nature intended, don’t get sick. Problem solved.

Thus Yale is doing the right thing by serving grass-fed beef rather than its conventional counterpart. This is just one of the many ways in which Yale is promoting ethical, and indeed, humanitarian concerns through sustainable food. But shouldn’t we feel guilty for eating this expensive “luxury good”? The answer, I believe, is no.

My reason is that the entire Yale experience is a luxury good, a privilege unfathomable to all but a tiny, very lucky fraction of the world. Few Yalies feel guilty about the $30 million renovation of Cross Campus Library, the $2.8 billion investment return on our endowment or our $43,000 tuition and room and board (over four times the per-capita GDP of Mexico). Why should we feel guilty about sustainable food? Unlike new buildings, sustainability is a humanitarian pursuit.

Because Yale is such a privileged institution, we may even have a moral obligation to support sustainable food and the ethos it entails. Thankfully, with the dining halls now 40 percent sustainable, Yale is holding up its end of the bargain.

So why stop here? According to the 2005 YSFP Annual Report, sustainable food costs only 37 percent more than the conventional items in the dining halls, and it would cost $700,000 more per year for Yale to make its dining programs 100 percent sustainable. For the record, that is 0.00025 percent of last year’s return on our endowment.

This is great news for Yale. For just 2.4 percent of the CCL renovation cost, Yale could do something that no institution has ever done: make a definitive statement by committing 100 percent to sustainable food. A full expansion would improve University quality of life and would give students what they want — last year, 2,400 students signed a petition to expand the project. Most importantly (for Yale’s sake), the expansion would catch the eye of the press and attract applicants to the University. “Yale Commits to 100-Percent Sustainable, Gourmet Food.” Pre-frosh would flock. So make no mistake; sustainable food is more expensive, but it’s less expensive than you might think. And it’s worth it.

Daniel Fromson is a sophomore in Calhoun College.

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