Earlier this semester, I sat down with Professor Bruce Monger, Oceanography. Each Fall, his wildly popular introductory course attracts more than 900 students, currently comprising the largest course at Cornell. What’s all the hype about? Maybe Cornellians just want to learn about the origins of oceans and oceanographic processes. Maybe they’re interested in minimizing their environmental impact on oceans. Maybe they hope to hear Bruce’s legendary whale calls. Though I was not so fortunate as to hear any during our interview, he did offer an environmental perspective on eating, his own philosophy on food and diet choices and advice on how to eat sustainably.
The Sun: What does a typical day look like for you, food-wise? Do you make a conscious decision to eat or not eat certain foods?
Prof. Bruce Monger: I do make a conscious effort. I’m an aspiring vegan, but I do eat a little bit of cheese, so essentially I’m a vegetarian. I make a conscious effort to eat a non-meat diet.
One of the reasons I do that is the health factor — a plant-based diet is much healthier for you. But that’s not the major concern for me; I’m more concerned about the environmental and ethical factors. If I were going to order the importance of health, the environment and no harm in my eating decisions, I would put no harm first, then the environment, then health. (By no harm, I mean the cruelty that animals are subject to.)
If I have dinner at the house of somebody who doesn’t know I’m a vegetarian and they’re serving meat, I’ll eat it. I don’t look at people eating meat and judge them. It’s their call; everybody gets to make their own call. All I ask is that whenever you make a food choice, think about how that food got there and if eating it fits your ethical standards. If it does, then why not?
But I am aware that meat has this big impact on the environment. Excess meat production drives us to produce a bunch of corn. The fertilizer required to grow the corn is often washed into streams, while the manure of the animals at these big concentrated agricultural feeding operations leaches into the environment.
Essentially, it’s all about the connections. Be aware that if you make certain food choices, certain things will happen to the environment.
The Sun: Have you been a vegetarian your whole life, or is this something that’s come about as you started studying the environment?
BM: I can tell you the exact moment it came about. When I was in grade school, I liked science, but when I got into high school, all my buddies went into woodshop and carpentry, and later logging. So I stopped doing science, assuming that logging was just what the world does, and I did what the world did. On my first summer vacation from logging, I took a solo motorcycle trip. I pulled into a motel in Salt Lake City, Utah; It was the first time I had checked into a motel by myself. I was standing at the front desk and thought, “I’m checking into a motel by myself!” It was this great epiphany to me that I was an adult. I realized that I’m in charge of my life and that I have choices.
When I got back from logging, I realized I didn’t have to keep logging; I could choose to be anything I wanted to be. That’s a pretty powerful feeling. I decided to go to college and become an oceanographer. Then, as an undergrad, I was cooking a hamburger and could see all this grease bubbling out the sides. I looked at it and thought, “I have choices.” I threw it in the garbage can and have never looked back.
The Sun: Is there a way to produce meat on a large scale that wouldn’t have such detrimental effects on the environment?
BM: My neighbor raises 30 to 40 cows on a giant amount of land; these cows hang out all day long on beautiful, open, rolling hills. I think that’s a pretty sustainable, humane thing to do. But that’s a niche market. You can’t feed the planet a meat-based diet meat without doing it industrially and having some major environmental impacts.
The Sun: What about aquaculture?
BM: Some aquaculture is sustainable and some isn’t.
There are some nice apps you can use to tell whether a seafood is sustainable. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a seafood watch app. If you go to the supermarket or a restaurant and are thinking, “Is seabass bad or good? Bruce said something about shrimp being bad…” (because it’s bottom-trawled, for the most part — but you can get farmed shrimp, which is good), you just flip open the app and see what’s sustainable.
But if you’re in the supermarket and don’t have your phone with you, you can just look for a blue Marine Stewardship Program decal on the fish certifying that it’s been sustainably caught.
The Sun: Do you know of any eateries in the Ithaca area that serve sustainable food?
BM: Two of Cornell’s dining halls, RPCC and Keeton, serve only sustainably-caught, Marine Stewardship-certified fish. There’s a restaurant in the Commons, Coltivare, that serves only locally-raised, locally-sourced ingredients. In terms of grocery stores, I like Greenstar — it has really obvious signage that tells you where its ingredients are sourced.
The Sun: What would you say to people to make them feel like their choices matter?
BM: There’s a famous Buddhist story about millions of starfish washed up on the beach, and a Buddhist walking along the water trying to save each individual starfish. When asked why he’s doing it, since he’s never going to be able to save all of them, the Buddhist responds, “Well, it matters to the ones I do.” In the greater scheme of things, my actions may not help, but what it does help is my own personal integrity and enriches my self-esteem, and thereby enriches my life.