Monday, March 9, 2009

Paul Roberts on the future of food

In my opinion, Paul Roberts ranks right up there with Michael Pollan and Thomas L. Friedman when it comes to influencing positive change in the global food economy, so I am happy to link y'all up to a great article he wrote for Mother Jones, Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008 that examines the lesser known realities and complexities of alternative farming practices. It's sort of like a condensed version of his recent book, The End of Food. There is definitely a disconnect between the mass media push of organic and local foods and the actual impact, or reduced impact, that these choices may or may not represent.

I am particularly fond of what Fred Kirschenmann, former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture had to say to Roberts about sustainability: "Real sustainability is defined not by a food system's capacity to ensure happy workers or organic lima beans, but by whether the food system can sustain itself—that is, keep going, indefinitely, in a world of finite resources. A truly sustainable food system is inherently resilient—more capable of self-correction and self-revitalization than its industrial rival."

Definitely read the entire article (found here) because there is far too many important pieces for me to highlight here on JS. For now, as always, I offer the following excerpt:

Food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities. But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.

Consider our love affair with food miles. In theory, locally grown foods have traveled shorter distances and thus represent less fuel use and lower carbon emissions—their resource footprint is smaller. And yet, for all the benefits of a local diet, eating locally doesn't always translate into more sustainability. Because the typical farmers market is supplied by dozens of different farms, each transporting its crops in a separate van or truck, a 20-pound shopping basket of locally grown produce might actually represent a larger carbon footprint than the same volume of produce purchased at a chain retailer, which gets its produce en masse, via large trucks.

And for all our focus on the cost of moving food, transportation accounts for barely one-tenth of a food product's greenhouse gas emissions. Far more significant is how the food was produced—its so-called resource intensity. Certain foods, like meat and cheese, suck up so many resources regardless of where they're produced (a pound of conventional grain-fed beef requires nearly a gallon of fuel and 5,169 gallons of water) that you can shrink your footprint far more by changing what you eat, rather than where the food came from. According to a 2008 report from Carnegie Mellon University, going meat- and dairyless one day a week is more environmentally beneficial than eating locally every single day.

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