In many parts of the world, at least in places where humans have some choices about the type of food they put into their bodies, consumers are becoming more and more acutely aware of the impact our choices can make. With over 9 billion animals being raised and slaughtered each year in the United States alone, factory farming's devastating effects on the environment are escalating at an alarming rate.
Recent documentaries like Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret and Plant Pure Nation have brought to light for the general public the copious quantities of methane produced by livestock and the subsequent effect on climate change. And sometimes just eating local isn't enough to minimize our impact, at least for those compassionate eaters among us who truly seek to promote a sustainable model for consumption.
In a December 2015 article in the New York Times, Josh Katz and Jennifer Daniel purport that "you're better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from your local farm" in a list of guidelines to minimize carbon emissions. Now is the time more than ever to think about the basic economic principles involved in consumer choice—if we don't buy it, we're not buying into it, and production should subsequently deflate with every decrease in demand.
So there is the not-so-fun argument for why we should eat humanely, at home and abroad. But how about the pleasure of reacquainting ourselves with the gratification of real food, fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the farm that are artfully, even lovingly prepared?
Throughout my own travels, I can think of little that has brought me more joy than wandering farmers’ markets all over the world, seeing the brightly-colored mountains of produce piled high, both familiar and exotic, and choosing the freshest, most aromatic, sometimes most mysterious fruit from such a bountiful feast to take home and do my best to prepare. From the amber dates, plump figs, and warmly-scented spices of the souks in the medinas of Morocco, to the alien-looking but impossibly umami and irresistible truffles of the Tuscan country markets, to the flourishing community gardens and ardent locavorism of New Zealand, I've found connecting with the food of a place to be a mirror to the region's soul.
The floating markets of Thailand are visually stunning but, looking beyond the surface, represent a whole, complex, delicate economic and social subsystem. The sellers are reliant on the market, which is reliant on the crops, which are reliant on the season...it really makes you think how far we've gotten from our food when we buy a frozen pizza from a supermarket somewhere in the Western world.
When we grate a ginger root grown right here under the ground we trod, the intoxicating aroma it releases has literally formed under the soil, has been quenched by the rain falling from the sky, has been vibrated by the footsteps of the farmer. How can it not represent the essence of the place?
In dining out while traveling, we can also make humane choices and still experience elevated, enlightened cuisine. A meal at Manna Haven, an all-vegetarian cafe in Byron Bay, Australia, was the most memorable meal I had this current trip, not because of the restaurant's admirably humane approach but because the food itself was just ridiculously good. The freshest local vegetables, the deft use of herbs, spices, and seasoning, and the lovely presentation all bespoke the chef's practiced expertise, and never once would the omission of meat have crossed the diner's mind. Crispy fried polenta with homemade aioli and a towering made-from-scratch savory veggie burger with beets, avocado, and homemade hummus would entice even the most carnivorous.
Exploring community gardens is another way to tap into the local food culture, and they are springing up all over Australia and New Zealand, from rooftop worm farms and beehives in cities like Melbourne and Sydney to lush food growth gardens worked into botanical gardens.
One such community garden, in Hobart, Tasmania, is an "accessible public resource for the benefit of the whole community, providing the opportunity for individuals, families, and community groups to come together and produce, learn, share, and celebrate sustainable food in a beautiful, friendly, and relaxed setting" according to South Hobart Sustainable Community, the garden's creators. The goal is presented in gorgeous variety in the garden's bounty—it's positively bursting with food, from beets forming underground, to orange and green pumpkins growing low, to strawberries glistening plump and red, to aromatic green onions, basil, and cilantro springing up from higher levels.
Models of sustainable agriculture like this garden are a perfect paradigm of humane eating in which communities, both rural and urban, the world over would do well to emulate. Stop in any restaurant to taste the basic cuisine of wherever you are traveling, but taste something local, grown by someone local right there in the soil under your feet, and taste the soul of wherever you are.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.