Category Archives: food

Local isn’t the same as good

The Freakonomics blog dissects the environmental and economic effects of “locavorism,” the kind of eating explored by The 100-Mile Diet. Good for the environment? Not necessarily:

This is a pretty strong argument against the perceived environmental and economic benefits of locavore behavior — mostly because Weber and Matthews identify the fact that is nearly always overlooked in such arguments: specialization (which Michael Pollan mostly dislikes, and which has been around for a long, long time) is ruthlessly efficient. Which means less transportation, lower prices — and, in most cases, far more variety, which in my book means more deliciousness and more nutrition.

Ezra Klein considered much the same question the other day, and dug up some figures suggesting that you can make a lot more difference for the planet by changing what you eat — specifically by cutting back on meat — than by getting obsessive about where your food comes from:

As Brad Plumer writes, the striking takeaway is that “on average, replacing just 21 percent of the red meat in the ‘typical’ diet with fish or chicken does as much, emissions-wise, as buying everything in that same diet locally.” That’s not, of course, an argument against eating locally. Taste, farming practices, sustainability, and much else point towards local consumption. But buying locally raised meats doesn’t get you off the environmental hook.

There’s much to be said for knowing where your food comes from and trying to understand the tradeoffs you’re making when you choose it and appreciating the unique connections between a grocery item and the land it comes from. But “local” is not a synonym for “virtuous.”

Bad arguments about farming

It’s too beautiful a day here to be indoors typing (and indeed I haven’t been — I’ve taken down a fence and painted some of a porch and I’m glad of both — but I’ll raise Tom Axworthy’s piece on Canada’s food policy in the Toronto Star

We have not had a national policy to help the family farm since Eugene Whelan was minister of agriculture in the 1970s. Ever since, we have had a policy of industrial farming, consolidation, agribusiness and globalization. But this policy rests on the fatal flaw of cheap energy. That era is over. We must return to a policy of local food through the family farm…

With farmers squeezed by low prices and high costs, half of the farm families had one or both partners working off the farm to make ends meet, though farming is more than a full-time job. As a result, farmers are leaving their profession in droves: in 1991 there were 390,000 Canadians in farming but by 2006 there were only 327,000. In 1991, there were 78,000 young farmers taking over from their parents, in 2006 only 30,000. If the trend continues, who will be left to grow the food?

We need a national food policy that relies on the family farm to produce local supplies.

… just long enough to point out the built-in assumption that Canada requires a federal policy on where food comes from. Whatever we decide we want, government must act to get us there.

Note, also, two sleights-of-hand:

  1. Only two alternatives are offered: large industrial farms run by corporations, and small locally oriented farms run by families. Supporting a family farm is not necessarily the same as supporting a small farm. Family-run businesses come with all kinds of challenges that public policy is not necessarily well suited to manage.
  2. The absurd idea that because fewer people are growing food now than used to, the logical endpoint of this is that someday nobody will grow food, whereupon we all presumably starve.

Same-old-same-old prairie-leftie arguments, cloaked in environmentalism. Bleah.

Now, back outdoors.

Who’s to blame for the biofuels mess

It’s almost not worth commenting on, but I can’t resist pointing out that the lead of this Lorne Gunter column in the Edmonton Journal is simply false.

Note to environmentalists: Remember, you were the ones who demanded biofuels the loudest.

Actually, Midwestern corn farmers, plus drivers complaining about high gasoline prices. Most of the rest of the column on the havoc being wreaked by biofuels production from food is bang on, but no evidence whatsoever is advanced in support of this particular lead.

Eat bars. Not too much. Very expensive.

Seems to me that made-to-your-personal-specifications food bars are a lot of things, but I doubt “green” is among them. Unless, conceivably, you live in Los Angeles, where they’re made and shipped from. I don’t even know that they’d meet a strict Michael Pollan-esque definition of “food.”

Note that the YouBar people do not appear to market them as being particularly green. Just tasty, which is fair enough.

A right to food

I have no idea what you can do with a guy like Jean Ziegler, if his comments on food and biofuels are being translated and reported accurately. He doesn’t do the UN any credit as its “special rapporteur for the right to food,” at any rate.

“Producing biofuels today is a crime against humanity,” UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler told Bayerischer Runfunk radio.

Using arable land to produce crops for biofuels has reduced surfaces available to grow food, many observers warn.

Ziegler called on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to change its policies on agricultural subsidies and to stop supporting only programmes aimed at debt reduction.

Agriculture should also be subsidised in regions where it ensured the survival of local populations, he said.

“In addition, international market speculation on food commodities must cease,” Ziegler said.

Command economies all ’round, then, to preserve whatever the world happens to have made possible right now in perpetuity, and also to improve whatever isn’t working very well.

Without dismissing the very great importance of getting food to people who don’t have any, or the very real problems created for people who can barely afford it now that rich societies are running our cars on it, where does Ziegler think the stuff comes from? Collective farms?

(It may be a significant data point that Ziegler apparently helped create a human-rights prize named after Muammar Gaddhafi and likes Che quite a bit.)

Ziegler himself might be a daffy old French Marxist, but this well-intended nonsense points out one of the very serious problems we run into when we start talking about rights as positive things — as rights to things (food, shelter, education, work) instead of rights against things (interference with your thoughts, religion, speech). Most of the time, it means ordering up, by legislative fiat, solutions to problems that have bedeviled humanity for as long as there have been humans. That, in turn, opens the door to wrong-headed idealism.

After all, I don’t know how to feed everybody. I think I know how we can do at least a bit better at it, but I’ll tell you right now I can’t solve the problem entirely. Jean Ziegler, meanwhile, insists he can. If it’s your legislated duty to get everybody fed, I have to admit I can’t deliver the answers you need — and that means I have to leave the field entirely to Ziegler’s dangerous foolishness.

It’s all be a bit of good fun, if people weren’t starving while this guy was supposed to be helping them.

How subsidizing water can go wrong

Easy: if the going market price ever goes up.

With water becoming increasingly precious in California, a rising number of farmers figure they can make more money by selling their water than by actually growing something.

Because farmers get their water at subsidized rates, some of them see financial opportunity this year in selling their allotments to Los Angeles and other desperately thirsty cities across Southern California, as well as to other farms.

“It just makes dollars and sense right now,” said Bruce Rolen, a third-generation farmer who grows rice, wheat and other crops in Northern California’s lush Sacramento Valley.

Instead of sowing in April, Rolen plans to let 100 of his 250 acres of white rice lie fallow and sell his irrigation water on the open market, where it could fetch up to three times the normal price.

Argh. So much for helping agriculture and keeping food prices low.

A dizzying calculation

Trying to figure out whether local produce is more environmentally sound than stuff brought in from hundreds or thousands of miles away?

Might as well give up.