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Ecologically speaking

Ecological Prudence of Exotic Foods


The foods that are out of place and out of season can be called as exotic foods. Most of us have
deplorable passion for exotic foods. In this page exotic foods are analysed for their ecological prudence.
The foods that do not belong to the same season of consumption, and the foods that are not grown locally
can be considered as exotic foods. For north Indian states like Punjab, coconut, which grows in the south
Indian states like Kerala, can be considered as exotic. Similarly, winter vegetable like green peas, carrot,
etc., can be considered as exotic for summer season. Exotic foods are made available for consumption
either through long time storage and long distance transportation or through culturing under controlled
conditions (maintained in green houses).
Out of season exotic foods need preservation for enabling them to withstand storage over long periods
and transportation over long distances. Such preservation usually involves use of undesirable and toxic or
hazardous chemicals, and drying or dehydration that may result in loss of their natural taste, nutrition and
freshness. Storage of these foods may involve use of cold rooms, and expensive and resource
consuming freezing and deep freezing. Despite all the care, stored foods can get contaminated and
deteriorated. Transportation over long distance also proves expensive and resource consuming.
Transportation is fossil fuel consuming and air polluting. Further, the foods may require packaging, for
enabling their storage, transportation and delivery to the consumer.

Culturing of local foods in agricultural systems may require control of water and nutrient conditions of the
soils. But culturing of exotic foods (culturing of summer vegetable during winter may be in green houses)
may require regulation of additional parameters like temperature and light conditions. This involves
consumption of additional resources and proves very costly. For providing favourable temperature and
light conditions usually green houses with glass or polyethylene enclosures are used. Such enclosing can
increase moisture levels and carbon dioxide levels. Further the light conditions within the green house
may not be that natural.
Materials to become human foods may have to primarily satisfy the following dimensional properties:
• Calorific and nutritive values
• Palatability and digestability
Often foods are consumed for health reasons. That is, the consumed foods, in addition to serving as food,
should also serve as medicine. Social and psychological acceptability (personal preferences or likes and
dislikes) also matters a lot in choosing what to consume as food. We also come across people consuming
foods for egoistic reasons (for satisfying one’s own ego and for showing off to their neighbors and
friends).
Exotic foods are usually not fresh and are not comparable to local fresh foods in quality. Their nutritive
value, taste, digestability and their medicinal value are not comparable to local seasonal foods. Carrots,
green peas, etc. taste best in their peak season of availability but not as exotic foods. Exotic foods may
be contaminated with toxic preservatives being used, and with disease causing germs and their toxic
metabolites. That is, exotic foods are inferior to seasonal local foods from nutrition, taste and health
angles.
Exotic foods are very costly. Australian apples cost over 250/- per kg, in Punjab and other northern states
of India, while the local apples rarely go beyond Rs. 50/kg. Making available of exotic foods involves
spending of more energy and resources (more fuel for their transport, more electrical energy for their
storage, greater technological inputs for their preservation and packaging, and more labour), for their
culturing, preservation, packaging, storage and transport. We end up paying very high price for exotic
foods. A coconut in south Indian states may be available at Rs. 2 to 4 per piece, while the costs over Rs
15 per piece in north Indian states. Similarly, green peas during peak summer months may cost beyond
Rs. 40/kg, while their cost is below Rs. 10/kg during the winter months.
Exotic food habits are more damaging to the environment. They involve wasteful use of natural resources,
specially, the already scarce conventional energy resources and electrical energy. Processing for
preservation of foods is contaminating foods with undesirable and toxic/hazardous chemicals. All the
activities, associated with culturing, processing for preservation, packaging, storage, transportation and
consumption of exotic foods, generate wastes and damage the environment. Though local seasonal
foods are also damaging to the environment, but they are relatively less damaging.
Despite being not fresh, not nutricious and not healthy, and despite being very costly and relatively more
resource consuming and damaging to the environment, people have craze or passion for exotic foods.
Exotic foods at the maximum may satisfy once ego. With exotic food habits one may be in a position to
show off among neighbours his food habits. But these purposes of foods do not represent the primary
requirements of foods (calorific and nutritional value and palatability and digestability). They do not even
represent the second level of requirements (health and social and psychological requirements). These
infact represent the remote third level of requirements. Hence exotic foods are deplorable from almost all
angles. They prove not good at-least from ecological, economic, environmental and health angles.
Finally, our intention is not to totally oppose preservation, storage, and transportation of foods and even
the green house culturing of foods. We may be frequently forced to resort to these activities, though
deplorable from the exotic food habits. Local severe weather and environmental conditions very often do
not favour culturing of seasonal local foods in a specific geographical region. Such situations may force
us to go for preservation, storage and transportation of foods from other geographical regions where they
are available. Similarly, in cases where local seasonal foods are not available, and preservation, storage
and transportation of foods from other regions is not feasible, then one may have to resort to green house
culturing of foods under controlled conditions.

Ecologically speaking: vegetarianism or non-vegetarianism


Most of us usually think vegetarianism is superior to non-vegetarianism and more desirable. Let us look at
this issue from the ecological angle.
Human being is omnivorous (partly herbivore and partly carnivore). Both plants and animals (and their
products) constitute human food. Human being also consumes a third category of foods, foods of
detritivorus origin (mushroom!). In this article the foods of detritivorous origin are refered to as detriti
foods. If animal foods (not just flesh but also animal products like milk) are defined as non-vegetarian
foods, then we rarely come across any pure vegetarian or a pure non-vegetarian.
Sources for human foods are both natural ecosystems and agricultural systems. At
least quantitatively, plant foods available are much higher than animal foods from most of the sources.
Agriculture and animal husbandry systems can be used for converting the plant foods into animal foods,
but the efficiency of conversion is very low (about 25%). Natural food webs (comprising of grazing and
detritus food chains), of the natural ecosystems and the agriculture and animal husbandry systems, have
the capability to convert many of the plant materials (which are otherwise unavailable as human foods)
into animal foods. Both agricultural systems and the animal husbandries, specially, when function
independent of each other, generate residues and wastes that need proper management and handling
and environmentally sound disposal.
Utility value of foods apparently depend on many factors, like, calorific value, nutritive value, palatability
and digestibility, social and psychological acceptability. Technology inputs, in the form of processing,
dressing and cooking, can improve the utility value of the harvested raw foods. Further, many of the plant
and animal products, which are otherwise not having negligible or no utility value as food, can be
converted into foods through technology intervention. At the same time, even with the technology
intervention many of the plant and animal products cannot be converted into foods. Processing, dressing
and cooking activities however reduce quantity and generate wastes that need proper management and
handling and environmentally sound disposal.
We are all concerned with the maximization of carrying capacities of our agriculture and animal
husbandry systems and of the natural ecosystems in order to feed the increasing population and ensure
food security. For this, we should maximize food production from our agricultural and animal husbandry
systems and food harvests from the natural ecosystems, while ensuring sustainability of the systems in
question and environmental protection. Further, the foods should have sufficient and satisfactory utility
value. For this, we may have to harvest as much as possible of plant foods (plant materials that can be
directly consumed as foods and plant materials that can be consumed as foods may be after acceptable
level of processing, dressing and cooking) from the systems and leave the rest of the plant productivity in
the system for conversion into animal foods and detriti foods. The animal foods in turn can be harvested
while ensuring the system’s overall health and sustainability. In case of agricultural systems the
agricultural residues, instead of considering as wastes, should be used as inputs to the animal husbandry
systems and converted into animal foods. Further, the conventional animal husbandry can be added with
detriti food industry for facilitating conversions of plant materials into detriti foods. However, use of any of
the plant materials, that can be consumed as plant foods, in the production of animal foods and detriti
foods, can lower the food production and hence the carrying capacity of the natural ecosystems and the
agricultural and animal husbandry systems.
Ecologically speaking, for maximizing the carrying capacity, human populations should consume all the
three categories of foods (plant, detriti and animal foods). However, the plant foods should not be
transformed into animal and detriti foods in the animal husbandries. In other words, for sustainability,
human populations should continue as omnivores. Further, people should be encouraged to turn into
ecologically sensible non-vegetarians and rather than only vegetarians. Here one should not forget that
many people believe both animal and detriti foods as more nutritive and healthy to human being. However
the current non-vegetarianism is highly deplorable. Because major fraction of the animal foods are
actually coming from the plant foods, specially food grains.
For understanding the superiority of ecologically sensible non-vegetarianism one may look into the
following hypothetical case of a agricultural and animal husbandry system.
Let us assume the following for the case study

Capability of the agricultural system to produce harvestable plant material 100 units/year

Percent harvested plant material that can be consumed as plant food 50%

Percent plant material that can not be used as plant food but can be used as 40% (20% to
input to animal husbandry produce milk)

Percent plant material that can neither be used as plant food nor as input to 10%
animal husbandry, but can be used as input to detri food industry

Efficiency of the animal husbandry and the industry of detriti food to transform 25%
plant material into animal food or detriti food

Nutritive value of the food Maximum percent of food to be plant food for 75%
ensuring both calories and nutritive requirements

Further nutritive value of the food is assumed to depend on the animal food fraction of the total food (can
we assume 15-25% fraction of animal food can ensure optimal nutritive value to the food).
We will estimate the total quantity of food that can be made available for the following three scenarios
• Vegetarian food (plant food and milk)
• Food supporting the current non-vegetarianism, wherein 30% of the plant foods are consumed to
produce animal foods say with 33% efficiency
• Food supporting the ecologically sensitive non-vegetarianism
Exploratory calculations for this hypothetical case give the following results:

Animal food
Detriti
Scenarios Plant food Total food
food
Milk Non-milk
Vegetarian food 50 5 --- 2.5 57.5

Current non-
35 5 10.95 2.5 53.45
vegetarinism

Ecologically
sensitive non- 50 5 5 2.5 62.5
vegetarianism

In the vegetarian food habit scenario, the food available is higher. But its overall nutritive value is
relatively lower (over 90% is plant food). In the current non-vegetarianism scenario, though the food
availability is lower its nutritive value is higher (35-36% is animal food). But, in this case, per capita bulk
consumption of the food can be relatively lower. Further, nutritive value of the food is usually wastefully
used. In the ecologically sensitive non-vegetarianism scenario, the food availability is highest of the three
and its nutritive value is also appropriate or balanced (20% is animal food).