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.

Fairer trade

CoffeeCup

Photo credit: “Coffee Beans,” Flickr/Refracted_Moments

It’s impossible not to be amused by the Fair Trade coffee people, who got together to present an alternative to the big coffee combines that paid prices for coffee that the Fair Trade people considered to low … uh, finding themselves splintered by people saying the Fair Trade prices are too low. Reports the National Post:

Coffee drinkers who prefer a shot of social justice with their morning java might be surprised to learn that the minimum price paid to fair trade coffee-growers hasn’t changed in 10 years.

“It’s like not taking a raise in 10 years,” said Monika Firl, producer relations manager for Cooperative Coffees — a group of 22 small coffee roasters in Canada and the U.S. who import only organic fair trade coffees.

In principle, Fair Trade seems to make a lot of sense. It’s essentially a way for consumers to pass judgment on the business practices of the people they buy coffee from — coffee-drinkers who want to push more profits down the chain from the big roasters and packagers to the farmers have a voluntary certification organization they can count on to arrange just that.

Don’t care? Buy coffee the way you always have. Eventually the growers will get the hint and find something else to do, one hopes. But if you do care, you’ve got an easy way to show it.

Now, if the Fair Trade organization isn’t fair enough for some buyers’ tastes … well, maybe it’s time for a new Fairer Trade group.

What’s “better” mean?

This post at Reason magazine’s “Hit & Run” blog is interesting not because of the post itself — it’s a summary of a story in an Australian popular-science magazine that purports to debunk the usefulness of organic food with a handful of cherry-picked studies — but for the extraordinarily long discussion thread that follows.

There’s a fair bit of trolling and nonsense, especially as you go deeper and deeper in, but what fascinates me is how many people are arguing entirely at cross-purposes to each other.

What does it mean to assert that organic food is “better” (or “no better”) than conventionally produced food? We could be talking about nearly anything:

  • Flavour
  • Nutritional value
  • Agricultural yield
  • Harmful chemicals, or the lack thereof
  • Environmental impact of the means of production
  • Economic impact, to the extent that “organic” often is used to mean “local” and/or “small-scale,” at least in part

and probably three or four other things that I’m not thinking of. It’s practically impossible to have any hope of defending the proposition that organic farming and food are “better” against attacks from all those directions at once.

This is not fair, but it is the way politics and economics work — if you want to change people’s behaviour, you have to make an ironclad case. It doesn’t have to be sweeping, winning on all fronts, but that which you assert, you’d better be able to prove.

Plenty of the people posting at the Reason blog appear not to be interested in evidence, just in having a nasty argument. Can’t do anything about them. But remember that they’re out there, and if you’re arguing to convince laypeople, you have to be able to overcome their every rhetorical and logical trick. If you can’t — if you are, in fact, making an ideological rather than a rational case for organic food, or environmentally conscious choices of any kind — you deserve to lose.

Large-scale organics aren’t oxymorons

Aurora Organic, a company ostensibly specializing in large-scale organic farming has turned out to have put more emphasis on the large-scale part. Reports Time:

On Wednesday, the USDA announced its investigators had found that Aurora failed to keep proper records about how its cows were raised, and mixed regular cows with organic cows. The government and the company reached an agreement under which the company will be allowed to keep its organic certification if it makes adjustments that include reducing the number of its cows — from about 2,200 to 1,200. The farm also plans to expand its grassland to about 400 acres from 325. Clark Driftmier, a spokesman for Aurora, said these plans had been in the works for at least two years and that its customers — whom he declined to name — have expressed support.

Says Bruce Knight, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA: “We’ll be looking over their shoulder for the next year, and if they fail to come into full compliance, we’ll be taking serious action.”

This is all bad (except that Aurora was caught), but I’m not buying the argument from some more extreme organic-food advocates that large-scale farming is necessarily incompatible with organic practices.

Marc Gunther of Fortune puts the problem down to a conflict of values:

Behind the dispute are more fundamental questions about the future of the organic food industry, which generated about $16.7 billion in revenues in 2006. Can the small-scale, family farmers who got the organic movement going years ago compete with bigger, well-capitalized companies like Aurora that are moving in? As Wal-Mart and Costco sell more organics, will standards be diluted?

Certainly the little guys won’t be able to compete if the big guys cut corners to cut costs, which appears to be the case here.

CoweatingThis isn’t his central point so Gunther doesn’t develop it in detail, but I think his logic is flawed. The consequences for Aurora from this little incident are massive. Marc Gunther doesn’t write about it when Organic Dairy Farmer Dan gets caught spiking the silage (assuming Farmer Dan gets caught, which he might not). The rewards for a big business that breaks the rules might be great, but the consequences of getting caught are proportionately high, too.

Point is, it’s a mistake to use “organic” as code for “small and independent.” The word can usefully describe a process, not the mentality attached to the people carrying it out.

And frankly, if we’re going to feed the world without destroying the plant, large-scale agriculture is the only way it’s going to work.

Photo credit: Flickr/foxypar4