the other side of the omnivore’s dilemma

We haven’t cracked into it yet, but I got Linette a copy of author Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for Christmas. I suspect a great deal of time this week will be spent trying to reconcile what we read in it with what we just read in the “Economist”. (What, the rest of you don’t gather the family together and read the “Economist” on Christmas morning?) Here’s a clip:

…This partly explains why food bought from local producers either directly or at farmers’ markets is growing in popularity, and why local-food advocates are now the keepers of the flame of the food-activism movement. Local food need not be organic, but buying direct from small farmers short-circuits industrial production and distribution systems in the same way that buying organic used to. As a result, local food appears to be immune to being industrialised or corporatised. Organic food used to offer people a way to make a “corporate protest”, says Mr Pollan, and now “local offers an alternative to that.”

Buying direct means producers get a fair price, with no middlemen adding big margins along the distribution chain. Nor has local food been shipped in from the other side of the country or the other side of the world, so the smaller number of “food miles” makes local food greener, too. Local food thus appeals in different ways to environmentalists, national farm lobbies and anti-corporate activists, as well as consumers who want to know more about where their food comes from.

Obviously it makes sense to choose a product that has been grown locally over an identical product shipped in from afar. But such direct comparisons are rare. And it turns out that the apparently straightforward approach of minimising the “food miles” associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.
The term “food mile” is itself misleading, as a report published by DEFRA, Britain’s environment and farming ministry, pointed out last year. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad. Instead, says Paul Watkiss, one of the authors of the DEFRA report, it is more helpful to think about food-vehicle miles (ie, the number of miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-tonne miles (which take the tonnage being carried into account).

The DEFRA report, which analysed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.) And even if flying food in from the developing world produces more emissions, that needs to be weighed against the boost to trade and development.

There is a strand of protectionism and anti-globalisation in much local-food advocacy, says Gareth Edwards-Jones of the University of Wales. Local food lets farming lobbies campaign against imports under the guise of environmentalism. A common argument is that local food is fresher, but that is not always true: green beans, for example, are picked and flown to Britain from Kenya overnight, he says. People clearly want to think that they are making environmentally or socially optimal food choices, he says, but “we don’t have enough evidence” to do so.

What should a shopper do? All food choices involve trade-offs. Even if organic farming does consume a little less energy and produce a little less pollution, that must be offset against lower yields and greater land use. Fairtrade food may help some poor farmers, but may also harm others; and even if local food reduces transport emissions, it also reduces potential for economic development. Buying all three types of food can be seen as an anti-corporate protest, yet big companies already sell organic and Fairtrade food, and local sourcing coupled with supermarkets’ efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around.

Food is central to the debates on the environment, development, trade and globalisation–but the potential for food choices to change the world should not be overestimated. The idea of saving the world by shopping is appealing; but tackling climate change, boosting development and reforming the global trade system will require difficult political choices. “We have to vote with our votes as well as our food dollars,” says Mr Pollan. Conventional political activity may not be as enjoyable as shopping, but it is far more likely to make a difference.

Some of it’s no doubt bullshit… like the part about it being better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter than growing them in England, inside heated greenhouses. No shit. But, that’s not the only other possibility. What about not eating tomatos in winter, or, better yet, canning them when they’re in season? Still, I think the article is worth considering. At the very least, I think the article helps to remind us all that buying local isn’t in itself a cure for all of our ills. And that’s probably a good thing.

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20 Comments

  1. Sam
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    There are some major over simplifications apparent in this analysis. It looks like the main benefit they can show for not buying local is the bulk transportation benefits of centralized, globalized farming. Aside from that, factory farms in particular have some serious problems. Most of the huge quantities of fertilizers used by these big farms, is generated from petroleum. Do you really believe that greenbeans flown in overnight from Africa is beneficial or that we are even getting them that quickly.

    There is also the issue of industrial livestock production. Hog farms in particular generate huge quantities of liquid waste, that sits in lagoons and occasionally overflows polluting the surrounding area. There is also the huge quantities of anti-biotics and hormones fed to the animals on these factory farms. And then there is the issue of GM crops, which there is no doubt that most industrial food production is based on.

    Finally bio-diversity, is tremendously important to a sustainable food supply. Monocultures are inherently unsuitable and unsustainable, whether they are biological, technological or cultural. The Irish potato famine is a prime example of what happens when a biological monoculture is infected by a disease, and there are countless other examples. Again the industrial farms tend to focus on single crops which is dangerous. Using a single argument like bulk transportation costs is easy from a purely dollars and cents perspective, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

  2. Mike
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear, Sam.

    No matter how persuasive of an argument is made, I can’t shake the feeling that they can’t stand with future oil prices. Maybe they’re right, maybe it really is better today to produce with a super efficient centralized system, but I know that by the time I have grown children, we won’t have the oil to stand on. Unless we either build a sustainable system now, or Mark’s flu from yesterday hits huge, we’re going to have a hell of a time dealing with the oil crash.

  3. mark
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Like I said, I don’t really agree with the guy… however… I think that he’s probably right when he says that organic farming wouldn’t feed the world’s population.

    Clearly we need to move toward something more local, cleaner and less oil dependant, but we have to keep in mind that it’s not a panacea.

  4. Hillary
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Another logical progression is that to reduce food miles, one should try to eliminate trips in cars.

    In the heyday of Detroit’s Eastern Market (not to be confused with the hay days), farmers lined up in full trucks to wait for an empty stall, and customers arrived on streetcars.

  5. scott
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    “we have to keep in mind that it’s not a panacea.”

    I fully agree, Mark, but that points to the larger problem I see with this article. It frames buying local as a consumer statement promoted by various institutions, sometimes for nefarious political purposes.

    However it completely overlooks the likelyhood that buying local is a “symptom” of a deeper and broader lifestyle. I personally don’t eat local food specifically to make an anti-corperate, environmental statement or promote a specific political agenda. I do it because it fits into my personal values and adds joy to my life. These values are likely to express themselves in lots of other parts of my life, too. So I probably don’t drive across town in my SUV to pick up local hot-house tomatoes when I’ve got a jar in the pantry.

  6. scott
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Oops!

    Apparently, my haughty values and conscientious lifestyle don’t include spell checking.

  7. ol' e cross
    Posted December 26, 2006 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got a pal doing relief work in remote Sudan and subsisting on the local diet of goat’s milk and boiled goat.

    Canned garden tomatoes may be local for us, lucky us. For me, none of the buy local arguements have any purity unless we’re willing to forgo coffee, oranges, cocoa and any other things that don’t grow well in Mich.

    I’ve had a long issue with the buy American thing. We buy local blueberries and blueberry farmers in Chile go broke and eat themselves. I’m willing to pay more for organic food, but I’m not willing for food prices to rise so much that poorer families can’t afford food.

    We need the smallest impact on the environment. We need the greatest good for the greatest number of folks, globally, not locally. I’ve never read anything by buy-local folks that candidly discussed what the impact of buying local would be on poorer nations. We need to be as cynical of our own impulses as we are of everything else. I want to believe that it’s as simple as if I buy the right apple, I save the world. A dark part of me suspects that I may do more global good by shopping at Walmart than at the Shadow Art Fair. It may not be true, I hope it isn’t, but I have to be willing to keep an open mind, and accept it, if it is.

    It’s late. I may be incoherent. I’m drunk on locally brewed beer made with imported hops. I am, after all, a house divided.

  8. mark
    Posted December 27, 2006 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    “A dark part of me suspects that I may do more global good by shopping at Walmart than at the Shadow Art Fair.”

    Are you trying to get thrown off this site, Ol’ EC? First you tell people not to buy my comic, and now this

  9. mark
    Posted December 27, 2006 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    In all seriousness, I understand what you’re saying, Ol’ EC. From a global sufering perspective, Wal-Mart may be a net positive. I don’t think, however, that you can compare a dollar spent there to a dollar spent with a local vendor of handmade/grown goods, regardless of whether it’s at the Shadow Art Fair or not.

  10. j7uy5
    Posted December 27, 2006 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    The way to do it is to live within walking distance of the farmer’s market, and transport the veggies in a backpack, or on a bicycle. Or plan your day so that you stop at the vegetable stand on the way to someplace else, or on the way home from work. Or get together with three other people and go to the farmer’s market together. (Just to expand on Hillary’s comment).

    Things like this make it difficult to do an economic analysis of the sort you mentioned.

  11. ol' e cross
    Posted December 28, 2006 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I’m in the exact same state as last night but allow me to continue…

    First, I really do want your comic. I’m now willing to pay double my offer of half-off the list price. Although it’s rather derivitve of Howard Finster, I find it delightful and have a soft, oozing spot all things Ypsi.

    Second, I can’t shop at Walmart. I am ill-equipped to determine the global economic good of WM vs. SAF, but I’m firmly opposed to the concept that economic good should be the determining value placed on anything. Other than my inability to shop in crowds, I love and promote the SAF because it:

    -Aims at a higher purpose than massive financial gain
    -Rewards creative attempts
    -Connects people to people
    -Has cool shit, etc.

    If we place our apples soley in the economic or environmental good cart, we risk losing once someone proves our system is inferior by those measures. Those are ligit concerns, but social impact has to be included. For me, the glorious ways we’ve learned to make meat tasty are art, history and culture as much as a trip to the DIA (art museums, after all, are incredibly economically/environmentally wasteful enterprises).

    I remain skeptical that buying an apple at the farm market is, hands-down, the undisputed enviro solution. But, I’ll keep buying them there because it connects me to my folks and that keeps me feeling a little more human. And, although I’ll try to reduce by my choices, I’ll keep eating meat because I am, as my ancestors, a sucking slobbering carnivore.

  12. murph
    Posted December 28, 2006 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Sam nails some of the reasons why the Economist article is being severely disingenuous. (Er, “some of the ways in which” – “the reasons why” are more along the lines of “they’re philosophically invested in global comparative advantage as the highest good”.)

    I’ll warn that I devolve into raving zealot mode here pretty quickly, and I do apologize – I’m pretty angry at the type of misconceptions that the Economist is perpetuating.

    * Winter hothouse tomatoes are a total red herring – eating locally does not involve keeping the exact same diet but simply changing the source. It involves also eating a more seasonal diet. And before you decide this is a totally unreasonable bit of austerity, I dare you to buy an apple at Meijer in March, regardless of the source, and tell me it’s as good as the one you bought in October at the Farmers Market.

    * Livestock production, as Sam comments, is another good example. You posted about industrial hog production just last week, a case of taking a working system (manure fertilizes crops produce feed for livestock who produce manure) and breaking it into two problematic pieces (crops alone need synthetic fertilizer; livestock alone need feed and produce a massive manure problem). Downsizing our food production from BigAg to farms is environmentally and economically a good idea.

    * What’s that you say? Small farms operating in traditional fashion will starve the world, and/or send the price of food through the roof? Baloney. Do a little reading into the actual yields of skillfully performed traditional farming, declining yields of “green revolution” crops, the comparative production of household/market gardens vs. commodity crops for export in Africa and Asia (where they actually do research on these sorts of things, rather than accepting the views of the Economist as gospel), and the true cost of food when the social externalities are included (synthetic fertilizer and resulting pollution, aquifer depletion, “manure lagoons”, erosion, etc), and you’ll most likely come to the conclusion that we can’t afford *not* to eat more locally.

    * “Eating locally” does not mean giving up oranges or coffee per se – a thousand years ago, people were shipping spices, livestock, silks, etc halfway around the earth. There’s no reason we have to give up, say, Alaskan salmon entirely – but we’d better start treating it like a delicacy rather than a three bucks a pound commodity at WalMart, before we cause the entire system to collapse and have none of it ever again.

    * To OEC – “the glorious ways we’ve made meat tasty” leads me back to a comment Mark made a while back about not going completely vegan due to the importance of culturally relevant dishes that include meat. AFAICT, American cuisine (well, Anglophone in general) is the single worst example of meat eating as culture. Fine, yes, a nice piece of seared beef is tasty, but treating “a piece of meat with some irrelevant side dishes” as culture seems pretty sad once you understand that other cultures have managed to create actual cuisines that include meat, but also include other things that are tasty and hold their own. In my post-vegetarian opinion, you can eat meat, and eat a lot better, once you get past the “if it’s not meat, it’s not food” attitude that is the hallmark of a tragically deprived American upbringing (as, admittedly, my own was).

    * “Oh, but think of the poor people in other countries! How can we deprive them of their livelihoods by selfishly eating locally?” Once again, do some reading that’s not generated by those philosophically and economically beholden to the globalization of commodity food production. In a great many cases, the best thing we could do is let people return to traditional agriculture rather than forcing our industrial ignorance upon them so that they can stop starving to death. Yes, forcing – look into how the World Bank and IMF work.

  13. ol' e cross
    Posted December 28, 2006 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Murph,

    I’d like to hear more raving zealotry. I agree that meat, like oil, is underpriced. And, supermarket apples suck compared to the farm market. My frustration is simply, for example, that analysis I read of the waste of factory farms doesn’t often include a comparison analysis of the water/gas consuption of canners and co-ops, etc. Apples are bad, I read and agree, but then they don’t tell me about the oranges. (I’m probably just not well read.)

    If you have a chance to recommend book or Web-based reading sometime, I’d be oblidged.

  14. mark
    Posted December 28, 2006 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    This is a great thread. Thanks, everyone. I appreciate your thoughts.

  15. Hillary
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    I’m not able to calculate what amount of my $20-22 gas bills are canning, but I do know that home canning jars are re-used whereas cans from the store are recycled. The water can be used for other purposes as well.

    Quiting oranges or coffee is definitely not the way to go about shopping more locally. Eating more locally grown food is easier and naturally leads to less consumption of other things. When the pantry is full of unadulterated applesauce, jam, fruit pie filling, and salsa, the oranges don’t sound as good.

    I started by checking labels on everything from cleaners to eggs for origin information. It took longer to shop at first, but it’s just as easy now that we’ve found alternative products. Local brands are usually cheaper and just as good.

    We had to move to Hamtramck/Detroit in order to do this, but it is also possible to walk to a local grocer who buys things at the farm market or from a local producer.

  16. odoketa
    Posted December 29, 2006 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    I posted something about this article on my blog, and someone then pointed me to this thread. I would offer up a couple of points to the discussion thus far:

    1 – it might be worthwhile, as a follow up, to read the more recent Economist article on measuring happiness – in the end, a lot of the objections to being beholden to ‘the economic good’ are addressed by some of the newer concepts on how exactly to define ‘economic good’.

    2 – Hillary pointed out some of the ways to find products that are sourced locally, however, ignoring the fact that the concept that ‘local is better’ seems to be taken as given, also spent more (in terms of personal time) to do so. One of the reasons so many of the concepts of ‘personal choice’ are a failure is because time is not taken into consideration (I offer the medicare prescription drug plan as the perfect example).

    3 – Murph’s post was somewhat longer than I want to get into here, but I would reply to the comment “Small farms operating in traditional fashion will starve the world, and/or send the price of food through the roof? Baloney.” The assumptions behind the concept of small farms are vast. First and foremost is the question of choice – do I, personally, want to grow my own food? For some of you, for some of your food, the answer may be ‘yes’. But all of your food? Probably not. And sooner or later we’re still going to have the same problems, even if we could stop the world and start the whole ‘division of labour’ thing over from scratch. I’m going to notice that farmer Joe down the street does a better job growing tomatoes than I do, and I’ll buy them from him. If enough people do that, he becomes one of those massive conglomerates. And if farmer Joe can’t grow enough tomatoes for everyone who prefers his to their own, the price of those tomatoes will go up. And if enough people find they are able to do something else, that allows them to buy farmer Joe’s tomatoes rather than grow tomatoes themselves, we might have too few tomatoes. Extend this to enough foods, and you get hunger. His reference to externalities is correct, but the implication is that the cost of food is already through the roof.

    I’m going to stop here. I look forward to hearing other comments on this.
    David

  17. Hillary
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    odoketa: It would be interesting to compare which shopping method takes more time. The time and money wasted driving to and from stores is seldom accounted for. Maintaining a car and insurance is expensive, too. I walk a few blocks to do the majority of our shopping, exercising at the same time. We probably visit Eastern Market twice a month (4 miles away), on bicycles during the summer, and every 2 to 3 months, we fill the pantry with canned goods and cereal at a Spartan store less than a mile away.

    I started canning initially because commercial products are not as good as what Grandma used to make, and I can’t buy crabapple jam or refrigerator pickles. Is it not worth the time to make a real pot-pie because Banquet makes them for 10 cents each?

    While shopping, I’m also socializing. I shop at the same stores my neighbors do, including elected officials and city workers. I know all the business owners, and they know what I like. As scott mentioned earlier, shopping local is just part of a broader lifestyle.

  18. mark
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Hillary, I was thinking that, if one doesn’t already exist, it would be good to have a simple video tutorial on canning. (I haven’t searched yet.) I don’t have a lot of free time these days, and I’m not that confident in my editing skills, but, if you’re up for it, I could come out and shoot some video the next time you can. Then I could post it here and elsewhere.

  19. Lisele
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Of course, few people can raise all of their own food. We are pack animals–we literally need the community to survive. Which is the glitch in the back-to-the-land vision in which I retire to the country and provide for all my own needs. It never was that way and it never will be. A functioning community is itself the safety net.

    The issue of relocalization is a spiderweb, pull on any thread and it is connected to a multitude of others. Can we deny our business to Chile having infected them with a global market mentality? I think those of us not employed by the IMF can ONLY act locally, in most cases. This thread is connected to the entire culture of fear, the grandiose belief that our actions impact worlds. We have to build a functioning community here & now and take action on things actually within our sphere of influence.

    I believe that much joy & pleasure is lost in our disconnection from direct contact with cycles, critters, other people, & good clean dirt. For me, reclaiming that gratification entails an entire overlapping series of choices (sometimes self-contradictory) that, yes, take time. No Walmart shopping, no giftwrap, no factory farmed meat. Yes to gardening, teaching others to garden, canning, salting, smoking, root cellaring, etc. That’s my specialization. (I’m counting on youse guys to handle the cheese-making, coffee & orange trading routes, etc.)

    But the other threads include overpopulation, pollution & acid rain, global warming, bigotry & scapegoating, outsourcing of manufacturing, etc. We can only respond by creating a small, sustainable, organic, diverse, tolerant, creative community right here.

  20. Hillary
    Posted December 31, 2006 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    These videos are pretty good and cover all types of canning.

    http://canningusa.com/

    If you have any interest in pressure canning, I’m planning to make a big batch of stew or chili soon.

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