Safi Sana Stories

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Our climate is changing. How about our diets?

What’s closer to home than the food we eat?

Well, for many of us, our food comes from all over the world. But the influences on our diets remain: Family, place and increasingly so, media. So, when someone points out that something we eat upsets them, we may feel hurt.

Food is personal.

I grew up on a remote organic farm. My mum is a badass cook who knows her herbs and spices. Given our rural setting the adage “food is medicine” holds power.  Mum stopped eating meat when her papa, my grandpapa, served her rabbits for a festive dinner. She was 10 and never turned back to eating animals - with the exception of fish on rare occasion. Dairy does not sit well with her anymore. Living in the tropics, a bounty of fruit, veggies and grains keep life exciting for Mum.

Moving from home in the African bush to boarding school, I realized that not all meat is equal. Some meat is chewy and gamey, others is tender and fatty. The vegetarian kids had a special section in the cafeteria. I used to go there when the meat served was too chewy (and get called out by the true vegetarians).

It took a while for me to stop eating meat. Avoiding veal and lamb were the first step. This was a weird journey because I for the longest time I did not understand why mum did not eat meat with the rest of us.

Studying for a biology exam in tenth grade on the beach in Nungwi Zanzibar, the conversion inefficiency of primary producers (plants) to consumers (animals) hit me smack in the face. On average 90% of energy is lost in each step up the trophic ladder. Say a cow eats a patch of grass, 10% of the grass’s energy ends up with the cow. And then John eats the cow. John only gets 10% of the cow’s energy and in effect gets 1% of the grass’s energy. Now apply that principle to tuna or salmon.


My first thought was: how can 7 – 8 billion people eat as inefficiently as I do? The simple answer is: we can’t. Not with one planet not even with two. We cannot all go vegan. Traditional lifestyles can be the most sustainable way to live in the environments they evolved in. Urban folk, actually anyone who goes to grocery stores and not to markets connecting you to community members, can reduce their ecological footprint substantially by eating less meat and animal products. If you have to eat animals for health, consider the nature of each product. Making butter emits more greenhouse gases than many fisheries and cultures of small fish and mollusks.

Back when I decided to drop all animal products from my diet, this prompted many discussions at the cafeteria. Fortunately I developed a lovely relationship to the cooks in the cafeteria. Resentment grew from my friends on days when my food (think Thai curry) looked better than theirs (think scrambled, formerly powdered egg). My dietary decision made the rounds through the school. A lovely teacher of mine gave me a cookbook. Another caring soul of a teacher took me aside and asked me if I was feeling good.

Other than getting over a teenage love affair I was doing great. I cooked more than ever before. Mushrooms, potatoes, onions, greens (whatever plant or fungi that was local and organic ended up in my pan.) I ran every day and meditated. It felt like I was growing. I felt hurt by my friends’ reactions, however. They claimed I just wanted attention. They said I was misinformed. And they thought I was judging them. Perhaps I was. I tried not to. But eating is emotional.

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