NATURE WISE: Environmental cost of holiday entertaining

Most of us, including myself, give very little thought to the environmental consequences of the different types of food that we serve.

Bob Handfield is past-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the club.

At this time of year in particular it seems that many of us strive to put on something a little extra when we entertain guests, whether it is something simple like a bowl of mixed nuts, some fancy chocolates or something a little fancier like a platter of shrimp.

And I suspect that most of us, including myself, give very little thought to the environmental consequences of the different types of food that we serve.

Let me say right up front that my record in this regard is no-better than most people’s so the purpose of this little piece is not to make you feel guilty but to point out that we can make choices that do have consequences, however small each individual action might be.

Let’s start with that bowl of nuts, a holiday tradition in many homes throughout Canada.  Pecans and almonds are pretty common at Christmas, whether in that bowl or decorating the top of the fruit cake.  More than 80 per cent of the world’s supply of almonds comes from California where 10 per cent of all the water used in the state is used to grow those almonds.  That’s more than 1 gallon for each individual almond produced. If you think that sounds like a lot consider that it takes about 5 gallons of water to produce one walnut. A pistachio nut on the other hand requires only about 0.75 gallons.  Cashews are also water hogs. Substitute dates and raisins instead!

I love chocolate – chocolate with 70 per cent to 80 per cent cacao is just about perfect.  Unfortunately, the more I research chocolate the more I think I’m going to have to give it up.  Not only does chocolate have huge environmental costs associated with it but it seems that much of the world’s chocolate is produced by employing forced child labour.  Cocoa trees, like coffee trees, are native to shady rain forests but as the demand for chocolate has outstripped the supply, growers have come up with varieties that grow in the sun (just as they have previously done with coffee) and the result is the same – large swaths of the world’s dwindling rain forests are being cut down to convert to monoculture cocoa plantations.  And that’s the good news about chocolate.

Most of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa (specifically Ghana and the Ivory Coast) and tropical Latin America.  Child labour and slavery have been well documented on cocoa farms in West Africa but to date there are no documented cases of either in Latin America.

Hershey’s states on their website that currently about 10 per cent of their cocoa is certified but that they intend that 100 per cent will be sourced from certified farms by 2020.

Unfortunately as recently as 2011 it was shown that illegal child labour was being used on “certified” farms so it remains to be seen whether there is such a thing as ethical chocolate. Since most organic chocolate comes from Latin America that is probably your best choice right now.

The production of shrimp is an $11 billion industry of which about 50-60 per cent is farmed shrimp, mainly from southeast Asia. At first thought, one might think that farming shrimp is much better than depleting our wild shrimp stocks by overfishing, but like most things these days, it just ain’t that simple. Shrimp farms have grown along the southeast Asian coastline by the removal of the coastal mangroves and with devastating effects such as increased coastal flooding.

In addition, the newer intensive farming methods have resulted in high loads of feed, fertilizer and antibiotics in coastal waters and in some cases contaminating local groundwater aquifers.  Do your part by buying Canadian trap-caught shrimp – many local stores are now displaying various certification programs (SeaChoice and Ocean Wise are the two Canadian certifiers) to help you make a better choice.

You don’t have to give up that shrimp platter – you just have to exercise a bit of judgement and read labels as to the source of your purchase.

The South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club meets most months in the Penticton United Church hall at 7 p.m.  For details on check out our website at;

Bob Handfield is past-president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the club.

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