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Sustainable Food
Alex Steffen, 5 Dec 04

Sometimes the simple answers are the best. That's certainly true with food: it's a pretty good rule of thumb that in terms of sustainability, local food trumps imported, and organic beats petro-industrial. There are exceptions, but they tend to be the kind that prove the rule.

Worldwatch has an entire special section on sustainable food, if you want to learn more, while our friends at Ecotrust have put out one of their excellent "section Z" publications on the issue: A Tale of Two Tomatoes.

Kids in Berkeley, California, meanwhile, are growing much of the food for their own lunches, and transforming their diets from the traditional tater-tots-and-jello cafeteria many American kids grow up eating towards "slow" food and healthy eating. More at the Edible Schoolyard page.

Finally, if you missed Emily's post on Sustainable Restauranteuring, do yourself the favor of checking it out. If your favorite restaurant isn't buying local and organic, you might want to introduce them to the Chef's Collaborative.

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Traveling Tom is gassed to redness?! OH GOD! PLEASE STOP THE INDUSTRY, I WANT TO BE A HIPPY.

Honestly, whenever I read crap like this, throwing out possible accusations of genetic engineering, the use of *gasp* chemicals in food production, and the idea that if you spend an extra dollar on local plants, it'll add $2.50 to your community (how does that happen again? Can you say government grants?) I have less and less respect for the sustainable agriculture movement.

There is an implicity idea in most of this that science and industry is evil, and only "natural food" is "pure". What kind of argument can you use against someone who rejects rationalism?

And if you are advertising for a pay-for-pdf, you may want to say that in the post. The worldwatch section costs $13.95 to view

Posted by: Ben Hunt on 5 Dec 04

Ben Hunt raises a vallid point that I've heard many times before: the sustainabile agriculture movement sometimes sounds more like a fringe social movement than a solid environmental one, and it can sometimes turn people off. Some folks just don't want to shop at Whole Foods or the local co-op, and they resent being told that they're bad people for shopping at Wal Mart.

Okay. Fine. That's probably a valid criticism.

Maybe it's more enlightening to consider that industrial agriculture has been one of the biggest drivers of worldwide environmental changes we have seen in the planet so far? In fact, the invention and widespread adopting of industrial agriculture is probably the single most transformative events in the history of the biosphere.

Consider the following:

Human activities have cleared (not just influeneced, but cleared) about 1/3 of the land surface of the planet for growing crops (18 million square kilometers -- about the size of South America) and animals (34 million square kilometers -- about the size of Africa). Our urban areas, while growing quickly, are much smaller by comparison (around 3-5 million square kilometers worldwide).

The flow of nitrogen (a major nutrient in biological production) through the world's ecosystems has now more than doubled as a result of massive chemical inputs and atmospheric pollution. This might be seen as a "good" thing, initially, but there are some serious consquences. First of all, excess nitrogen and phosphorus are degrading the freshwater and coastal ecosystems (turning them into green soupy messes, with low oxygen levels and dead fish -- a hypoxic "dead zone" in many cases) in many parts of the world. Furthermore, nitrate (one of the forms nitrogen takes in the soil and groundwater) is found in dangerous levels in many groundwater systems. Too much nitrate has been linked to various gut cancers and "blue baby syndrome" in pregrant women. Finally, N2O (another form nitrogen can take in agricultural soils) is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

Also consider the massive amount of fossil fuel energy that goes into industrial agriculture, primarily for fertilizers and transportation. That's another greenhouse gas issue, and also an issue when fossil fuels become much more expensive and scarce in the future. (Whether it's in the next decade or the next century, oil will become more expensive and more scarce. You'll have to wonder whether people in the future will be ticked off because we wasted fossil fuels driving around in SUVs, instead of saving it so they could grow more food.)

Finally, there are thousands of other, scientific sound reasons to worry about the industrial model of agriculture we have today. Easier spread of crop diseases. More vulnerable to bioterrorism. Encourages novel emerging disease pathways (e.g., prions, resistent bacteria in cattle, etc.). Soil erosion. More vulnerable to climate change. And so on.

So Mr. Hunt has a point: sustainable agriculture sometimes seems like a hippy-fringe movement, rather than a sound policy recommendation. But that doesn't need to be the case. There is extremely sound science and sound logic behind the push for more sustainable agriculture too -- and some very hard headed people are worrying about these issues too.

Of course, many of us believe that the social benefits of sustainable agriculture are a good thing too. But the case be made easily just on the points Alex suggested the other day in his excellent essay. Sustainable agriculture is very likely to be more secure, healthier (not just to eat, but in terms of food safety and reducing the threats of emerging disease), ultimately more profitable for local economies, etc.

Now, the real question is how to do it, and how to assure that the world's food supply is adequately safe, accessible to the poor, profitable, and abundant.

Posted by: Jon Foley on 5 Dec 04

local lucy looks is a little *too* friendly for my liking.

Check out this story on urban farming in Detroit

Posted by: Cameron Sinclair on 5 Dec 04

In response to Ben - industry, technology and science all have a crucial role to play in correcting environmental problems.

The issue seems to be convincing Ben, and others who share his point of view, that there is a problem. The facts & figures section of the website gives sources for the claims in the article. This is free to read.

There is no shortage of scientifically based information which supports environmental concerns. The shortage seems to be in the willingness of many people to think rationally (with reason and logic - without bias) about the entire issue. As Ben asked, 'what kind of argument can you use against someone who rejects rationalism'? Many people who deny environmental concerns are reluctant to consider the evidence. The ongoing challenge for environmentalists is to make their message tasty and easy to digest.

Posted by: Jel on 6 Dec 04

Further links related to this story:

Labelling of foods:

Readings on Sustainable Community Economic Development (and more):
From the Rocky Mountain Institute --
I found The Economic Pursuit of Quality by Thomas Michael Powers (M.E. Sharpe, 1988) very helpful in understanding the way dollars can cycle through local economies to produce more-than-a-dollar impacts, without external inputs such as grants.
And from the Sustainabile Business Council, Missoula, Montana --

Slow Food Movement:

Posted by: metasilk on 6 Dec 04

Poeple keep beating the doom and gloom drum but the fact is the food industry doesnt run on oil it runs on energy and even after oil is scarce we will still have energy sources to power the tools and engines of agriculture.

The fact is overall the food industry is going the oppposite direction from organic to completely artificial food sources. If you have eaten a burger or a steak or some chicken resently remember that animal likely as not was fed food partly made of factory made completely articifial food.

In 20 years genetic engineered foods will dominate the food we eat. The simple reason being that the amount of farmland will be cut drasticaly as our cities gobble up farmland to expand.

In time giant factories will create food completely inside a building from vats and from various other methods and much of the food we eat will be either directly of that source or animals fed from such sources. Because thats how many people will likely be alive then and thats how much room we will have to feed em. Massive buildings filled with animals and vats...

Posted by: wintermane on 6 Dec 04



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