My Own Omnivore’s Dilemma: no acceptable solution

Welcome to the July Carnival of Natural Parenting: Let’s Talk About Food

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have written about their struggles and successes with healthy eating. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Come with me to the dairy aisle, and I will introduce you to the math problem that haunts my food choices: The problem of non-intersecting sets. You see, in my ideal world, my food choices do not necessarily make the world a worse place. I’m not a perfectionist, but in this other reality, I have the opportunity to make good choices, not just accept the least-bad of a questionable lot.

In the case of dairy products, I would like the ability to purchase milk that came from a cow that wandered the fields, eating grass and clover and who was not subjected to unnecessary antibiotics. Also, I would like this cow to live within a couple of hundred kilometers of my home. And, as the icing on the cake, I would like the farmer who takes care of this cow to have an adequate income, a stable market and some autonomy on the running of their farm.
As it happens, I know a farmer with a cow that roams the fields. She’s even willing to get another cow and provide me with milk, as long as I purchase the cow. She lives about 130 km (80 miles) away, which isn’t completely convenient, but it’s workable. I like her cow. I would love to be the owner of such a cow. But I am not allowed to have the milk from that cow or any cow like her. The farmer doesn’t have quota, and she doesn’t have access to an approved facility for milk processing, and she doesn’t have $100,000 to build one. So I cannot have that milk.

Hence, I arrive in the dairy aisle at the grocery store, where I am faced with two options. The first is milk from a co-op (right on) of dairy farmers in my own area (super), some of whom pasture their cows (good), although most of them are still in confinement (not cool). The milk has been pasteurized, which I can live with, but it has also been fractionated, recombined, standardized, homogenized, and any number of other things… really, I don’t know what they did to the milk between the cow and the store, but it was an industrial process, and I probably don’t want to know. It’s not really a whole food any more, though.

[My husband, overhearing this mumbling, and looking at the beehive and the chicken coop in the back yard, is justifiably concerned. Fortunately for his sanity, we’re about 5 acres short for pasturing.]

The other option available is the organic milk. Also produced by a co-op. I understand that the cows were pastured… at least that’s implied on the packaging. The people who advocate organic for health reasons have told me that if I can only afford one thing, it should be my dairy products. [No, I don’t have a reference. I can get one if you really need it.] It’s $12 a gallon. It comes from Ontario, 2400 km (1500 miles) away. It’s still gone through a raft of industrial processes. On the plus side, it seems to last well beyond its best-before date, and sometimes it is on last-day-of-sale (50% off). And it freezes well.

Our finances have recently become more stable. I started buying the organic milk… but I’m not comfortable with it. It’s better for us. It probably reduces the toxic impact of our consumption. But it is a heavy product that we are perfectly capable of producing locally; the System just precludes it. And therein lies the problem. I know what the right thing would look like, it just doesn’t exist. I can put my own priorities roughly in this order: (From “Absolutely vital” to “Extremely important” to “Very important”)

  1. Environmental Impact
    • Carbon footprint
    • Toxic loading
    • Habitat destruction
    • Creatures displaced/killed
    • Topsoil, mangrove, genetic diversity loss
  2. Human impact
    • Local economy
    • Fair trade
    • Labour practices
    • Child labour
    • Pesticide exposure for workers
    • Mistreatment of migrant labourers
    • Bankruptcy of small farms
    • Corporate take-over of farming
  3. Health of my immediate family
  4. Not completely bankrupting us or going insane with indecision

Except, that’s in the abstract. That is how I prioritize when sitting in front of a computer and thinking through the issues from afar. Standing in the grocery store faced with: organic apples from Chile, non-organic cherries from somewhere in the USA, organic bananas from Guatemala, double plastic-wrapped cucumbers from Ontario, bulk brown rice from a place of indeterminate origin, tofu that probably contains genetically modified soy beans, and asparagus from Peru, I relent, and I choose the best of a bad lot.

So, given that list, here is how I would make those particular choices. Today. Might be different tomorrow.

  • No to the apples from Chile, except when my apple-loving son is pleading with me and apples are out of season.
  • Yes to the USA cherries, but only this month when they are at least in season somewhere on the continent.
  • Yes to the bananas because that’s as good as it gets and I’m too much of a wimp to give up all tropical fruit forever and ever.
  • Yes to the cucumbers because it’s almost the only vegetable I can get the toddler to eat. But I might get a field cucumber next week because at least it isn’t wrapped in plastic. Unless there’s a really good sale on english cukes, or the local greenhouse comes back into production.
  • Yes to the brown rice, but I feel guilty because organic is available. Please, please don’t tell me horror stories about how rice cultivation is ruining the world. I have to eat something.
  • No to the GMO soy. Tofu only if I can find organic, which is more expensive than beef.
  • Never asparagus from Peru, but sometimes from Ontario, for about 2 weeks in May. But I planted 25 asparagus plants this spring, in a fourth attempt to solve my asparagus-lack.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s not just dinner. It’s a curriculum. But I’m not entirely sure what is being taught.

Hey, internet: Are you sure we can’t fit a cow on an acre and a half? (My husband says you only get a vote if you are willing to come over and milk it.)


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be updated July 13 with all the carnival links.)

29 responses to “My Own Omnivore’s Dilemma: no acceptable solution”

  1. I love your breakdown of priorities. I hadn’t really organized mine that way, but I plan to now. That’s either going to make my decision making a lot easier or a lot more complicated, but I’m certain it will make it more consistent with my ideals. I think it makes a lot of sense to have a real concrete idea of what you are looking for.

    I had the very same conundrum with milk. Raw milk has been the subject of huge political strife in my state, so I have resigned myself to the fact that there will be some significant processing to any milk I buy. However, I was recently able to find organic milk that is produced locally – the farm is about 100 miles away and the vendor sells at local farmer’s markets year-around.

    Great article.

  2. I don’t know how much space you need to graze a cow – sorry, sweetie.

    As for the rest of it, I grok the difficulty. I have been working on improving our eating and balancing that against what I can feed my boy that he will eat. Ultimately, I suspect the solution lies in continuing to slowly shift things in the direction we want.

    Globally, we got here over time. It will take time to get to a solution we can live with.

  3. Wow. And I am proud of myself for choosing organic veggies over non-organic 😉 Seriously though, that is amazing. I just wish that consumers didn’t have to go through a series of complex calculations to choose food that was good for their bodies as well as for the environment. What do we have to do to get to *that* reality?!

  4. Oh my; I hear you on this, it is so difficult to make an empowered choice a lot of the time. There is rarely a product that ticks all of the boxes.
    I loved reading about how you personally weigh up the environmental and health impact along with cost; very inspiring. Thanks for sharing such an awesome and well thought out post; it’s great to meet others who actually lie awake in bed at night wondering about these things!

  5. I absolutely LOVE this post. You’ve really hit it on the head. I pass up the organic whatever all the time when it’s from Chile or Mexico and scan the bins for something, anything local and in season.

    About 6 months ago I started carrying around an “in season” list with me because I realized I’d be so programmed to think all food was in season no matter what time of year. It was humbling to say the least.

    So, just like you, I buy the organic bananas year round and occasional Honey Crisp apple from Washington no matter the season because my son also demands it. I’ve also resolved to skip the meat section all together unless it’s grass-fed, antibiotic free and humanely treated in life and death. Although, I’ll admit to breaking on the humanely treated requirement if I can’t get my hands on any (and that, actually, makes me sadder than anything).

    Sigh… I’m hoping by at least our grandchildren’s lives we’ll have created a better system of meat and produce and production. The way I look at it, we just have to.

  6. oh my gosh this is the best post ever… you just narrated my entire food shopping life. 🙁 lucky for me raw milk is legal to sell in England and there is a Jersey dairy 7 miles from my house. I say a prayer of thanks every time I buy milk.

    I think you can keep a goat on 1.5 acres:-)


  7. Great thoughts! Unfortunately, I’ve had to give up focusing on those topics very often. It’s too bad there aren’t any perfect solutions!

  8. Oh I so can relate to this… juggling ethics, health, finances…. sometimes it all seems just too hard and I wish I was ignorant and/or didn’t care at all!

    On the cow.. we have the space but oh the commitment… we struggle to find someone to feed our chooks when we go away, can’t imagine anyone would be willing to come milk a cow!

  9. Could you possibly get a goat for milk? That is, if you like goat’s milk. I can’t stand the stuff.

    Apparently we can buy raw milk here in Oregon, but you have to get it directly from a farm, which will more likely be someone who happens to have a few cows and want to share their milk. I still need to see about getting some, but it’s really expensive. I was just so excited today to find non-homogenized milk in a little country store just a few minutes drive from our house. Reading this post made me want to go try some…it’s good! It tastes just like homogenized milk. Why the heck does milk have to be homogenized???

    Anyway, I feel for you. It doesn’t sound like you have a lot of desireable choices out there.

  10. This bums me out. We have the same dilemmas. I don’t believe in veganism or even vegetarianism but it’s the milk and meat choices that are the hardest and most expensive. Luckily I have my husband on my side because we are having a child and mainly because he has seen the light – Organic food TASTES better. (I converted him with a crazy expensive bottle of organic juice.)

    Eff the system. Why can’t you just buy a cow and go to it and get the milk. It’s so backwards.

    I wonder how legal it is when my mom brings me eggs from her backyard hens.

    I shouldn’t complain – I live in Oregon and we do have a lot more options than other places.

  11. I love how you’ve articulated this. I well remember countless conversations with my husband where we tried to find food that fit all our criteria: price, convenience, taste, health, and ethics. It was a rare shopping trip we found foods to fit all categories. We generally had to compromise on multiple aspects, and then you’re left to prioritize one over the other. It’s a conundrum for sure.

  12. You can totally keep a cow on an acre and a half, especially a small cow like a Scottish Highlander or a Dexter. We just purchased a Scottish Highlander milk cow yesterday.

    Katepickle – Cows need a routine but do not have to be on a tight schedule. Keeping the calf with the cow eliminates having to have someone milk her while you are away. We pen the calf up at night next to momma and then milk in the morning. The rest of the day belongs to the calf.

    We have been eating wholefoods/organic for about three years and I still have the same dilemma as the grocery store. If something is labeled fair trade I am more apt to buy from another country b/c I know that the farmer is getting fair treatment.

    • Yes, I have been eyeing the Dexter as an option. A cow is a big committment, though, and I’m a bit of a slacker… despite all evidence to the contrary.

      I am looking forward to hearing your cow stories.

    • I am so not a farmer. I was seriously delighted to be informed that keeping a calf with a cow will milk the cow for you. That makes so much sense and just made me happy. Thank you. 🙂

  13. I guess I’m glad I’m dairy free…

    But, wow, I buy organic or not. That’s as far as I get – knowing where stuff came from… That’s the next step. Thanks! (And I looked at the photos of your garden- beautiful! I’m totally jealous).