Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sloppy thinking about local food

Margaret Wente, a columnist for The Globe and Mail (Toronto), styles herself a provocateur. Naturally, columnists want to be read, and so they often write provocative things to attract and engage their readers. But sloppy is not the same as provocative, and for a journalist with Wente's credentials, the sloppiness is both surprising and disappointing.

In her recent piece "Take the romance out of farming and ditch locavorism" she advises her readers that locally grown food is inefficient and bad for the environment. Oddly, she tells us at the end of her column that she has no intention to abandoning local food for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who patronizes local growers and farmers' markets.

But before she tells us that she will continue with her guilty pleasure of visiting the farmers' market, she gives us her litany of criticisms which should by now be familiar to local food advocates:

1. It's inefficient to grow a wide variety of crops in one locale because the best soils for each crop are not available. It's better to let those who have soil best for growing say, potatoes, grow those and trade them. Of course, very few in the local food movement have said that each and every crop one desires must be grown locally, say, within 100 miles. This is merely a straw man argument meant to get opposition hearts beating. And, it reads as if it has been lifted from an Archer Daniels Midland press release. Quite sloppy for a journalist of Wente's caliber.

2. Wente tells us that she is happy that marginal farmland around Toronto has reverted back to forest and counts this as an environmental triumph for modern agriculture. Some digging--not much actually--would have informed her that great swaths of Amazonian and other forests are being felled instead to satisfy mouths hungry for fast-food hamburgers, palm oil and many other foodstuffs which now find their origin in the former jungle. Deforestation that takes place out of sight is out of mind. Wente seems blissfully unaware that her alleged environmental triumph has really simply turned into someone else's environmental tragedy.

3. Now here is the centerpiece of her critique: "Modern mass-produced, globally distributed food (not junk food, real food) is cheaper, more nutritious, safer, higher-quality, more reliably available and far less wasteful than the local kind. Modern food systems have done wonders for our standard of living and have liberated humankind from the chains of rural serfdom. They have increased, not decreased, food security and made famines (except for those that are politically induced) all but extinct. As for food miles, numerous analyses have shown that claims made for the alleged benefits to the atmosphere of eating food grown close to home are largely bunk."

Cheaper? Can't argue with that (except to remind people that you get what you pay for). More nutritious? Increasingly, no. The degraded soil upon which modern industrial agriculture grows its crops often leads to produce with lower levels of nutrients. It may not be true in every case. But it's true often enough to matter.

Safer? Depends on what you mean by safer. If refrigeration and food preservatives are what Wente is referring to, then yes the modern system is safer. And, there are (sometimes lax) inspections and safety standards for food. But the introduction of genetically modified crops and overreliance on pesticides (which are increasingly understood as endocrine disruptors that can affect human health at very, very low doses) are important caveats to this claim.

Higher quality? Does she mean appearance or taste or both? It's not clear, but many (including Wente) are flocking to local food precisely because it tastes better and is fresher than supermarket food. More reliably available? Probably, until it isn't. The complexities of the global food system are in the process of being tested by intense drought in the United States which is the world's largest grain producer. Complex systems have a way of disappointing you just when you need them most. (See Saudia Arabia below.)

Far less wasteful? Knowing what she means by wasteful would be useful. Elsewhere she says that local food is inefficient. By this I understand her to mean that it requires more inputs (which it clearly does not), more emissions per calorie (evidence cuts both ways), and more labor (almost certainly). But efficiency is usually meant as an economic term, and as Wente is a former business writer, she is probably thinking in these narrow terms. But if we consider the external costs of industrial agriculture--deforestation, enormous fossil fuel inputs (10 calories for each food calorie produced in the United States), persistent and widespread erosion of topsoil, large pesticide and herbicide inputs (309 million pounds of insecticide and 577 million pounds of herbicide worldwide in 2010) and their effects on the environment and food safety--well, then the global food system doesn't seem so efficient.

So, just as Wente's lovely Toronto woodlands mask deforestation elsewhere that feeds her, so too do these various external costs disappear so long as somebody else has to bear them or so long as they don't crash the food system altogether.

But, history tells us that every society that has depleted its soil has collapsed. I know of no exceptions to this rule. And so, this particular external cost is being displaced both in space and in time away from Wente's present-day Toronto. Let future generations deal with the devastation we are bringing currently to the soil with our industrial agriculture, she seems to say. Her unconscious logic, however, is impeccable: If they pay the price later, naturally, it'll be cheaper for us now.

As for claims that the modern global food system has increased food security. I assume Wente is talking about nations and not the world's poor who seem as insecure in their nutrition as ever. But even if she is talking about nations, how secure should Japan which imported 59 percent of its food as of 2009 feel? How secure should Great Britain which imports 40 percent of its food feel? How secure should Saudi Arabia feel after its oil wealth was unable to secure as much rice as it wanted on the world market in 2007 as major exporters held back supplies because of concerns about domestic shortages? Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia's approach now to food security is to grow more crops of its own and not rely so much on the global food system to give it that security.

And, this brings me to a curious disconnect in Wente's logic. She somehow believes that the global food system creates more food security. But, she does NOT believe that the global energy system creates energy security. In a piece praising hydraulic fracturing used to free natural gas from deep shale layers in the United States, she wrote: "Best of all, the U.S. will become less dependent on nasty authoritarian petro-states." Why should that matter unless our global logistics systems really do NOT make us more secure in our supply of anything?

Despite this sloppy critique, you will be able to find Wente at Toronto's farmers' markets indulging in local food because, as she writes, "I love the sense of community and chatting with the neighbours. It’s much more fun than shopping at the superstore, and when the produce is in season there’s nothing that tastes better." Maybe she can start with that and rethink her condemnation of local food after considering just how flawed and incomplete her recent tirade really is.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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