What if your dietary habits were negatively affecting the environment? Would you change what you ate on a day to day basis for the sake of climate change? To combat deforestation? Reduce energy use as well as air and water pollution? This is certainly the rationale for many of my friends who have chosen to take the vegan dietary path.
The upkeep for cattle is considered environmentally detrimental. According to various studies, the greenhouse gasses emitted from the livestock and dairy production systems are numerically higher than emissions from larger transportation systems (thinking planes, trains, and automobiles). And methane gas flatulence from animals is just one part of this food system that is of concern. The energy and gasses exhausted in animal feed production is considered just as much a culprit of the environmental problems caused by food-animals.
These issues have been pressed upon the public for at least 10 years now – really since the 2006 publication of a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options, the report provides information about the impact the world livestock food system has on the environment – including air, land, and water pollution. The report, along with other studies, was shocking enough for former meat eaters to reconsider their dietary preferences. However others, including Dr. Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis, found the report extremely misleading because of its faulty, out-of-date data. For others yet, it wasn’t a matter of eating meat itself that was the issue. For some readers the report was a larger critical comment on how meat was being globally produced. These environmental impacts were considered a cultural problem rather than a dietary problem, and advocates of certain sustainability, organics, and raw debates continue to use the report (and the rapport around it) to advocate for changes in the industrial food complex.
How culturally inherent is our industrial food system? Very, if you consider when industrialization took place in the United States. The growth correlates with the World Wars and the “race” for scientific progress, and many scholars have taken up this time period as a substantial cultural shift in America and around the world. Milk – as you may have guessed – provides a fine example of this shift. Though considered a “dangerous” product in the early 20th century, milk was re-marketed as America’s drink in the mid-20th century. During World War II, images encouraging young men to drink milk and young women to continue to produce it while their troops were out to war became emblems of American culture. The machines, the mass production, and the science behind these systems promoted the country in a very specific way –still widely considered the “American” way.
There is no denying that there are aspects of the industrial food system that need some work. Politicians, scientists, and even farmers themselves have not always considered the consequences of “improved efficiency” in agriculture. But what about those cultural food systems that have lasted much longer than industrialization? Should they be critiqued in the same way? Should the problems associated with them ultimately change how we produce, eat, and prepare our food?
A recent example lies in the case of San Vitaliano, a comune that is considered a part of the Metropolitan City of Naples. Naples is considered the pizza capital of the world, and has been for a long time. Travel writers have commented on the “flat dough circles” eaten by the lazzarone (poor city residents) since the early 19th century. A native of Switzerland, Francis de Bourcard, wrote about pizza and drew Neapolitans preparing and eating it within the two volumes of his “Traditions and Customs of Naples” series – written between 1847 and 1866. Famed author Alexandre Dumas also wrote about pizza Napoli contemporaneously, with his 1843 Oeuvres featuring the dish in detail. Pizza captured the hearts of travelers, and has since spread globally as a universally desireable dish. But the traditional way to prepare pizza may prove to be more harmful to environmental and human health than previously realized.
In a BBC article published December 22nd this past month, the mayor of San Vitaliano placed a temporary ban on the use of wood stove ovens – used primarily by pizzerias in the making of traditional brick-oven pizza (using masonry ovens). The reason?: air pollution. San Vitaliano has been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, with smog comparable (if not worse) to Beijing. The edict is meant as a step to improving air quality, but the ban has not been well received. Protests launched by local residents reiterating that the smog cannot be from pizza making – that other factors were contributing to it. The ban, according to the article, will remain in effect until March 31st, when filtering systems can be reevaluated.
This decision by city officials of San Vitaliano has some substantial environmental science behind it. Concerning air pollution in the United States, the EPA has the “Burn Wise” partnership which encourages producers and owners of wood stoves and ovens to consider safer and better wood burning practices. Wood particles are considered nasty culprits of human health issues when breathed into the lungs – and they are major contributors to “reduced visibility (haze)” that create “environmental and aesthetic damage.” Solutions to excessive burned wood particles include using special filters as well as burning in particular ways. These include using wood that has been dried outside for at least six months, burning hot fires, and burning non-treated wood.
But just as too much pizza (vegan or otherwise) cannot be good for your health, are too many pizza ovens not good for the environment? The San Vitaliano ordinance seems to demonstrate that this may be the case. Reducing pizza oven pollution may have various consequences to it – economically and socially affecting residents as well as visitors of the area. It may even create a different dietary shift, depending on the impact of the ban and further research on pollution created through food preparation. Would you give up an inherently traditional dish for the sake of the environment? You may need to be prepared to answer this question wisely sooner than you may realize…
Bourcard, Francesco de. Usi e costumi di Napoli e contorni descritti e dipinti. Stab. tip. di G. Nobile, 1853.
Dumas, Alexandre. Oeuvres. Meline, Cans et cie, 1843.
Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, Mauricio Rosales, and C. de Haan. “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” 2006. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
Wiley, Andrea. Re-Imagining Milk: Cultural and Biological Perspectives. 1 edition. New York: Routledge, 2010.