Socially Conscious Eating

Socially Conscious Eating

Socially Conscious Eating is a lifestyle that connects us and our food consumption to the moral consequences of our food choices. The way we buy and consume our food has direct effects on our planet, plants, animals, and people who work to make our food available.

Together with Dr. E. Jane Bradbury, our guest botanist for this episode, let’s explore the ethical issues we confront each time we choose our food and discover how we can eat healthier, advocate for the benefit of animals, plants, the environment and humanity, all at the same time.

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(00:19)  Introduction

(00:49)  What is a botanist? What kind of things do you do every day?

(05:49)  What is the cultural relevance of foods and plant relationship with our eating habits here in America?

(11:16)  What are the benefits of local produce? Why is it very important to eat local?

(12:57)  What do we mean when we say that a food item is processed? Is something done to the food as it travels around to preserve it?

(14:59)  What are the costs of eating a local plant-based diets versus packaged processed foods?

(18:59)  How do we then be mindful of what we buy and what we consume so that we are minimizing our input and protecting our health at the same time?

(25:16)  What is fair trade and fair labor? Why is it a critical piece of the puzzle of what we need to be aware of as consumers when we go shopping, when we go eating?


RACHEL: Okay so, Today’s guest is Dr. E. Jane Bradbury of Ph.D. in Botany from University of Wisconsin in Madison, Dr. Bradbury welcome to the show today.

DR. BRADBURY: Thank you, thanks for having me.

RACHEL: So you are a botanist and an ethnobotanist. And you specialize in plant biochemistry, chemical ecology, crop domestication and global field culture, that’s quite a big area of focus. So, my first question for you is, just for our listeners to make sure everybody’s on the same page with us. What is a botanist? What kind of things do you do every day?

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah so, as you correctly noted botany is very expensive, so botany incorporates plant science, but botany also includes, other areas of biological study including the study of algae and fungi, so it’s not just plants, and often botany can also include the study of bacteria, particularly bacteria that well associate with plants, in some ways botany is everything except for animals which does make it hugely expensive, and then I specialized in ethnobotany, which is the interactions between plants, human cultures, and humanity in general and so we see these relationships really in every area of human life and it’s fascinating to me because botany is so relevant to a huge number of areas of life and yet it is very often overlooked and people don’t necessarily see how every breath they take is dependent on plants, much less everything we eat, everything we wear, I mean even our fossil fuels are remnants of algae and prehistoric stagnum of plants. So you know it’s just, it’s omnipresent.

So botanists vary in terms of what they do every day, you know, and how I have used botany has changed the course of my career, certainly a lot of educators are botanist, a lot of botanist are educators but then there’s also a lot of botanist that work for example in the USDA (US Department of Agriculture or the Environment of Protection Agency), they work in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and working with atmospheric chemistry. There are botanists that work in terms of serving and cataloging species, of course in terms of plant taxonomy and identification. Botanists do as many different things as botany is relevant to human life.

RACHEL: Sure, and would it be fair to say that you pretty much spend your time as a scientist, studying the relationship between plants and humanity, which brings us to our topic today of Socially Conscious Eating, so how that fits together is your studying the relationship during plants and humans and the effects or the impact, that we can have on each other – that relationship.

So, if we are so conscious, super conscious about the foods we’re eating, there are several different aspects that I wanna look out with you today and that is, food as sustainable for life, food as medicine, the relationship between food and society, when we talk about justices and labor and wage and trade and environmental stewardship and climate change and all of those different topics and talk about some different food systems and different agricultural systems, so I think for our listeners today, this is so relevant, and so many aspects of our daily life and I think you said earlier that we don’t even realize that even in the air that we breathe that this has an impact on us.

DR. BRADBURY: Right! Yeah exactly, exactly and that were the reasons why I have specialized in food cultures and agricultural systems in inside of my field of ethnobotany, because that is something where I feel so, you see the nexus of all of those relationships really come together and you get the plant biology and the eco systems and the agricultural eco systems and that biology and then you also get the human biology and nutrition and just basic how we are all surviving together on this planet. So you really get a lot of those impacts and then of course as you mentioned so ethnobotany, does combine not just the western science of botany but also an anthropological lens of understanding of cultures and society, how do these seem like purely biological concepts like growing food, how’s that actually then have any enormous impact on society and culture and values such as justice. Absolutely.

RACHEL: So let’s jump right into that and let’s consider the cultural relevance of foods and plant relationship with our eating habits here in America and I know when you and I have spoken before we realized that there are pockets even within our country, which are very different.
Right you mentioned Wisconsin and you mentioned Austin, Texas versus Atlanta and we understand that our listeners are going to be some in living in areas with better access to plant-based diets and some who are urban dwellers who rely on viable market since some don’t have those markets. So let’s talk about that I guess, first is the accessibility of food and a socially conscious, if you say if we must a decision to eat, socially conscious and do we have access to that.

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah!, so that’s a huge issue and so often when you hear people talk about diet in a socially conscious setting, you just receive a whole bunch of ultimatums, you know eat this way, don’t eat this and that, that kind of advices are often super tone depth the idea that we are a mosaic and accessibility of our country. So you mentioned that I lived places where it was super easy to eat local, organic food, and local farmer face to face and the supporting local agriculture and then I’ve lived in places that where literal urban food deserts, where fresh produce is really scarce and where it was really expensive and even the produce that was there was kinda crummy and from really far away and take a whole bunch of fossil fuels to get to me.

So it does, I do think that really the first step for anybody who is wanting to bring Socially Conscious Eating into their lives, is to assess their community and to see what resources are even available to them. It may end up being that resources that would be dedicated to buying local food or supporting bio dynamic sustainable agriculture, may end up being better spent focusing on improving the accessibility of those foods in general in your community or you know, looking at community waste management, and working with local governing boards to see if you can improve community waste management. Are there community garden spaces? One of the things that I do in my community is I work with the slow food movement which is an international organization that has local chapters that try to partner local restaurants with more local food supply chains, so you know maybe, your local restaurants are sourcing all of their food through Sysco or U.S food or some massive corporate food supply chain. If you can match a local vendors with local producers then that multiplies your impact right away.

So assessing the accessibility of more socially conscious food option is absolutely the first step, because everybody’s community is gonna be different and you know you can only do what you can do in your life, in your system.

RACHEL: You know, I know a lot of municipalities vary in the resources that they have in that they offer but I think that’s a huge area, as you’ve pointed out for us to be advocates and to be activists and to make a difference in this area. Here where we live in South Carolina, we have our trash picked up, once a week and a recycling picked up twice a week and I have a friend in California, who is the opposite and their community provides composting bins and it’s very different in different municipalities so I like your advices as for step 1; find out how to access your community, what resources are available to them, and if they are limited, be the person to help advocate, will put the link to the slow food movement in the show notes because you said that’s a national organization that perhaps, some of our listeners could get involve in their community if that is something, that is lacking.

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. Absolutely. And also just even going to your grocery store and talking to your grocery store’s buyer and manager, I mean they’re there, you can go to customer service and ask “Hey, can I talk to your produce buyer?” and helping them understand like, I want more organic produce option or I want local produce. Because, often grocery stores are not gonna necessarily take a risk on bringing in new inventory if they don’t know that there is consumer demanding for it.

RACHEL: Dr. Bradbury, what is the benefit of local produce? From your perspective, I know there’s probably twenty benefits but fill us in on you know, why that it’s very important to eat local.

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. So probably the two biggest things, I always focus on with people and encouraging them to go local are:

Carbon emissions – transportation of food not only across the country but around the globe is a huge carbon emitter, is a huge greenhouse gas contributor and so you know when you are buying locally sourced food, produce, dairy, whatever it is, then you’re cutting out, not just, you know, people often think of the carbon emissions from, “Oh, I got the apples picked from the tree and they came to the store.” That’s not how it goes, you know, when you’re buying locally, especially if you can manage to buy directly from the farmer, then you’re cutting out, the transportation from the farm to sometimes, two or three distribution centers, and then back out to, sometimes especially if you’re buying from a large grocery chain another distribution center that then sends out to the individual chains of the stores, individual locations. There’s a lot of like hidden movement of all of these food items that people don’t see and then anytime you get any kind of food item that is processed, it just multiplies up in terms of orders of magnitude of climate change impact.

RACHEL: When you say processed, are you saying that when these foods are sent to distribution centers and then re-distributed to stores where they become processed, that they become, did they do something to the food to make it last longer because I know that local food is fresher and is more nutrient rich if you can eat it within 24hours of it being picked, right? So, is something done to the food as it travels around to preserve it?

DR. BRADBURY: Oh yeah. There are various strategies so often fresh fruits are covered in wax, they could be coated in wax, or sometimes now you’re starting to see like individual plastic wraps, this drives me crazy, plastic wraps like apples, or plastic wrap even in potatoes, they were doing this…


DR. BRADBURY: Which not only then of course is like transportation of potatoes and all that but then there’s the production of the plastic. That gets involved in all of the environmental impact, so it does start really most pile up even for something as simple as an individual potato and then of course if you’re looking at something like, the next step in processing would be like simple fruit purees, apple sauces, jams, and then, as we take another step we might be looking at things that are like dehydrated or partially boiled and then dehydrated instant foods and every single set of this process brings in new layers of not just transport but manufacturing facilities and all of these are huge energy consumers.

RACHEL: Absolutely. And then there’s the chance of contamination, the more you pass food around instead of getting it straight to the table, right?

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. Absolutely.

RACHEL: So, let’s talk for second about the cost of food. Because I think it’s generally accepted at least I know in our community it’s generally accepted that plant-based diets are healthy, nutrient-rich, medicine, good for the soul, all of these things. But I feel like this is a topic that we definitely need to address. I feel like there’s a cost associated with eating.

You mentioned earlier people ask you that “Eat organic, eat non-GMO.” Those food systems when we adhere to these guidelines there’s a cost associated with doing that. Let’s talk about that for our listeners for a minute, about the cost of food, the cost of eating a local plant-based diets versus packaged processed foods.

DR. BRADBURY: Yes. That actually just reminded me that, I usually talk about two benefits of being locally and we just talk about carbon emissions and fuel consumption. I did not talk about the second one which is economic impact.

Generally, when you are buying food in the grocery store it’s pennies on the dollar that are going to the producer of that food, maybe up to like 15 cents and that’s a really great profit margin to the farmer. Whereas, if you are at a farmers’ market and you are buying local food directly from the vendor they’re getting upwards of 85% to 90% of the cost of your dollar of the food back into their business

RACHEL: You’re reversing the model essentially there. Wow.

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. We pretty much blackly reverse the model, and at the back-end this have a huge impact on people’s livelihoods. The agricultural sector is a really critical sector of the economy, we have to eat food but if people can’t make a living doing it, it won’t happen and that has become an enormous problem in our agricultural industry, and why, currently we are at the lowest population level of percent of the population that isn’t agriculturalist in human history.

And when people are not in that economic sector is when we get pushed towards big industrial agricultural practices, big mono cropping, big investment of fossil fuels. When we are bringing it back to supporting a local economy, then it allows people to then make shifts in their agricultural practices that have broader ecological benefits. Food is expensive and this economic impact is definitely I think related in terms of food cost and what people can do to then be able to afford a better investment in their food.

RACHEL: Sure. And I know from the US Bureau of Labor, they put out their statistics that the average household income is $63,000. Now we know that, as an average we have, we have a lot of outliers on both sides, right?


RACHEL: We have some poor households that make 10,000 a year, 15,000 a year. And we look at the average percentage of their budget that they spend on food and I think across the board the US Department of Labor says that we spend ton of 15% of our budgets on food. If you think of a family making 15,000 a year and they’re spending an average of 3,500 or 4,000 dollars a year on food, that’s a much higher percentage of their budget and that’s living in survival mode. Right? So how do we then be mindful of what we buy, and what we consume so that we are minimizing our input and protecting our health at the same time?

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah.Absolutely. One of the elements from the US Bureau of Labor statistics that I saw, was that even poor households are eating out, a fair out of the time and an average American household are eating out for about 30% of the time and so one of every three meals or so, which, is kind of a lot. If somebody is looking to really find a little extra room on their food budget to then invest in higher quality ingredients at home, cutting out one or two restaurant meals a week, will do it.

But I also know, that you know, I’m a mom of two kids. Like last night, was crazy, I mean there was dance and then the talent shows coming up this week, so she had to practice and I’m picking up my husband and in between we get dinner so, yeah, we went out to eat, we drove thru, we went but we also try to find the locally owned hamburger chain, who gives back to the community by supporting food local foodbank and who only serves antibiotic-free meat. We spend like 25 bucks on hamburgers for the family. But you know it’s all about, I think time to do the best that you can and that takes a lot of knowledge.

RACHEL: Yes. Yes.

DR. BRADBURY: And a lot of knowledge, if you’re standing here and you say, “Okay, I can’t afford the organic beans this week” or “I can’t afford the organic meat this week.” “What are my better options? There is some great resources for this so I really love the environmental working group, they have a really nice database for food. And looking at the environmental impact of different types of food and they have rankings of produce that uses the most pesticides, chemical pesticides versus the produce that uses the least. And that could really helpful for families in terms of prioritizing like, “Okay, I can’t find all my produce organic but I really should buy peaches that are organic.”

RACHEL: Right. Right. And I’ve read you know the fruits and vegetables that have the thinner peels are the ones more susceptible to the pesticides and so pineapples, for example, with the thicker shell might be more protected. Right?

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. And often that’s in general a good rule of thumb because something that has a thinner, you know exterior or more pores exterior, like strawberries, is going to absorb more of what is sprayed on it. But then there’s also just the question of, there are some especially some varieties of plants that require really intensive treatment, irrespective of the thickness of the skin on the fruit or that use a lot of fungicides, which are coming back to actually being significantly harmful for the honeybee population. At first, when honeybee started dying of everyone is, “Oh, is this pesticides? Because these are insects and so surely, it’s the insecticides that are killing them.” But then actually as we started the study of colony collapse disorder, what we discovered is a parasite of these bees and when the bees have their microbiome disrupted by fungicides in particular and they are not the microbiome in the honey hive is no longer the right balance of bacteria and yeast, then the parasite comes in and the hive becomes vulnerable to the parasite because it’s the other microorganisms that were protecting the hive from that parasitic invasion.

So, ecosystems are really complicated, and when we start just whole hog altering them, we start to see down chain reactions that we really didn’t expect. And sometimes it takes a lot of then sleuthing and investigative work to figure out what is really going on. So, I do recommend that you know, it does help and that’s the little things I think is gonna be great about this podcast series for folks is that I can’t tell everybody all the little tips and tricks right away. I can’t help people prioritize, when they should eat something that’s soy-based versus when they should just eat the meat, all in one 30-minute segment. So, it’s great that we have the opportunity to come back and talk about all of these concepts in more detail.

RACHEL: I feel like that there’s so much to this topic, to this one topic alone but you giving us resources like the slow food movement and the environmental working group and some places where we can personally seek out some more information, I think it’s very valuable to us. So, I’m gonna put the link to the environmental working group on the show notes as well and I’ve used that source myself and it’s very impressive. Now, when it comes to food, we’ve touched on briefly access to it. We’ve touched on eating locally, we’ve touched on the cost of it, and I know we’re 20 minutes in already, and I wanna talk about, before we end today, fair trade and fair labor. Because I think that’s a critical piece of the puzzle of what we need to be aware of as consumers when we go shopping, when we go eating. We need to know what that means and we need to know which system make based on the sourcing of the food. So talk to us for a minute about fair trade and fair labor.

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. So, these are really important concepts. Fair trade is more for products that are produced internationally and that we purchase internationally as a country, and that are brought in that are imported to the United States – trade products. This was really a certification that was born out of a law of the labor abuses that’s stemmed from the kind of airy global trade – free trade agreements – that broke down trade barriers between us and foreign countries.

But that in doing so, really open the door to supporting the exploitation of labor in these foreign countries. Everybody is probably pretty familiar this with the concept of like the Chinese Sweatshop or low wages in Southeast Asia, but nobody I think still kind of that position that like what can we even do about it and that is what this fair trade movement really is growing out of. And so some of this fair trade certified has had it supply chain inspected from a labor stand point, from a labor welfare stand point and a social justice stand point and so trying to make sure that workers are given fair wages, living wages. Trying to make sure that workers are not children, making sure that workers have safe working environment, that they are not working more than 8 or 10 hour work days.

A lot of the labor protections that we have in United States: a minimum wage, a maximum work week, work safety environment regulations – we take this for granted but a lot of these are not laws in other countries. Fair trade is a way to say, “I know I can’t make this foreign government has better labor laws but I can maybe use the free market to demand that companies follow this better business practices anyway.”

RACHEL: And we see this a lot on our bags of coffee bean. Right?


RACHEL: We see this with items that we consume on a daily basis that are brought in…

DR. BRADBURY: Yeah. Those are big ones and some produce, other produce now, so the coffee industry got exposed pretty early on for really horrible working conditions in the coffee fields and so that is where you I think find the whole fair trade labeling to really prominent. Coffee and chocolate those are big ones. Other spices other plantation based spices, but the one that I have started recently looking for and I’m having a harder time finding – I’m gonna have to start doing some of my own activism in terms of contacting companies where I can’t use my dollar or I have to use my voice – is with seafood. And so, one really eye opening resource for audience, in terms of fair trade stuff is a nonprofit, it’s called Slavery Footprint.

Slaveryfootprint.org and in these helps consumers track their spending contributions to modern day slavery. And this isn’t just low wages, this is no wages, this is sometimes people are stolen from their lives and put on to a fishing boat in the South Pacific and are not allowed off the boat. They die there, they live their whole lives, slaving for tuna. And so there’s a little quiz on slaveryfootprint.org and it helps you track. And it’s not a perfect quiz and it gives you just like estimate of how many slaves work for you, just maybe a little hyperbolic but what it’s really useful report is revealing the areas of consumer habits, like contribute to unfair labor practices.

And in that way folks can again, it’s all about prioritizing because we can’t do it all. So, that way that help folks when they see these areas that are really intensive and slave-labor that helps them then say, “Okay, I’m gonna focus on making an adjustment to my life in this way.”

And I think that in general, that’s my biggest piece of overall advice for folks is that, if we were going to completely align all of our eating and spending habits into the perfect socially conscious model, it will take not only the entire overhaul of your individual life, but also of our entire system. And so, we know that, like raging its machines dialect, it can’t be just one of us and so we all have to start doing the little baby steps that we can and just like any other lifestyle change, find that one first thing that you can do.

You know so maybe that one first thing that you can do is, you can start cooking your dinner at home each week. Using the money you save from not eating out to either, invest in local causes in your community, to support a local food coop, a local business that is using its business power to advance the socially conscious eating values that you want to advance, or to go to the farmers’ market. So say, “Ok, maybe I’m gonna cut out 1 or 2 restaurant meals a week, I’m gonna take that savings directly to my local farmers.” And then, once you do that for while that because the new normal that becomes your new routine.

RACHEL: Now, we have some colleagues who once a week cut out meat because of the footprint of animal agriculture with red meat. They have meatless Mondays. Right? So they’re taking those baby steps like you’ve said. And I personally went thru the slaveryfootprint.org website that you recommended before the show, and I thought that I was pretty socially conscious eater and consumer shopper. But when I went through the site, I was really shocked at what it revealed to me about my lifestyle that I hadn’t thought of, and so I think I’m gonna put in the show notes and I’d like for all the listeners to check it out because there’s two sections of it.

There’s an educational section; “Did you know this is happening?” Most people think that slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, but it wasn’t. You’ve hit on it several times that slavery exist, not low wages, NO wages. And people who are kidnapped and put into work slavery, human trafficking is very, very real, and it impacts us. We are exposed to it on a daily basis whether we realize it or not. But the few choices that we’re making, I want to encourage our listeners to check out the slavery footprint website. Take the quiz and see how you score, because I’ll tell you that I was shocked at my results. When they showed me how many slaves that currently working for me base on my lifestyle choices, I was shocked.

DR. BRADBURY: I was too. I also took the quiz. I’ve been making these baby step changes, I’ve been working at this a lot for a long time in my life. And we are relatively minimalist lifestyle and I was still shocked that I had like 56 slaves working for me and my family. There were 4 of us but I was totally shocked appalled like you know, I was before the show like we only have one car, and we don’t have electronics or huge culprit. And we don’t eat a lot of seafood, but seafood a big culprit and so that, that even opened my eyes and I was like, “Okay I need more baby steps time for more baby steps here.” And I think that’s absolutely the way that I would like to frame things for people, is to just become aware and then once you have these greater awareness, it starts to motivate you to take this small changes that can accumulatively add up.

RACHEL: They do, they absolutely do the small changes really make a difference. They add up and like you said, once you start doing it, I can say from experience, once you start doing it, you become more mindful and more conscious of what you’re doing which leads to more mindfulism, more being conscious of what you’re doing and you end up taking these additional steps. And so I was going to ask you, I had planned as our final question to ask you for some ways we can be intentional about what we eat, but I think we’ve really covered a lot of those ways in the show, I’m gonna sum notes up into bullet points and put it in a show notes, you’ve given us a lot of great advice and so I wanna thank you for being on a show with us today, and for sharing your passion and expertise for Socially Conscious Eating

DR. BRADBURY: Thanks for having me.

RACHEL: Yes. I wanna let the listeners know that you and I have talked and this is going to be a series and that you’re going to come back to our show and talk to us about some more of these topics and further details, specifically, agricultural systems, and food as medicine, and some of those topics that we just couldn’t get to on a 30-minute show today.

Thank you Dr. Bradbury for being with us, and I’m gonna put your contact information as well as your resources in the show notes. We will look forward to having you back on the show again soon.

DR. BRADBURY: Awesome. Well thank you so much for having me Rachel and yes, exactly as you said, each of these topics is so complex and this kind of overview really didn’t give a see-ability for me to talk about a lot of the data, or the specific environmental ecological impact. And so, I do so hope for to coming back and getting into some of these topics in more details, so that people can kind of understand in terms of the heart impact, in terms of emissions, in terms of pounds of chemicals that are used, in terms of hard numbers and real broader impacts. What their choices, how their choices affect our worlds.

RACHEL: That sounds fantastic. I know, we’ll all look forward to it. Thank for being on a show

DR. BRADBURY: Thank you.


More About Dr. Bradbury

Socially Conscious Eating

Dr. E. Jane Bradbury is a botanist specialized in ethnobotany which is the systemic study of the interactions between plants, human cultures, and humanity in general. She graduated cum laude with a degree in B.Sc. in Biology from The University of South Carolina Honors College, while she earned her Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Her research efforts have examined domestication and crop toxicity, specializing in two traditional crops native to South America that have retained toxicity in the domesticated form: “oca” (Oxalis tuberosa Molina) and “manioc” (Manihot esculenta Crantz). Both crops display an interesting syndrome of domestication whereby both toxic and non-toxic varieties are maintained, each with unique cultural customs of food preparation.  These crops provide a new research model to address the conflicting anthropogenic and ecosystemic selective pressures present in agricultural systems.

Dr. E. Jane Bradbury is a strong advocate for Indigenous Rights, within both her professional research and personal activist contexts. She currently lives in the South Carolina Lowcountry with her husband and two lovely daughters.

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