Monday, March 16, 2009

Alice Waters Hates Rainforests

Call me Natalie Imbruglia because I'm torn. I read a couple of weeks ago an article in Mother Jones debunking the environmental hullabaloo around food miles.
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.
This tendency to replace complexity with checklists is the hallmark of the alternative food sector. Today's federal requirements for organic food, for example, only hint at the richness of the original concept, which encouraged farmers to not only forgo chemical fertilizers but also replenish soils on-site, using livestock manure or crop rotations. The problem is that replenishing on-site is costly and time consuming. As demand for organic has grown and farmers have been pushed to gain the same ├╝berefficiencies as their industrial rivals, more of them (particularly those selling to chain groceries) simply import manure from feedlots, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Technically, these farms are still organic—they don't use chemical fertilizers. But is something really sustainable if the natural fertilizer must travel such distances or come from feedlots, the apotheosis of unsafe, unsustainable production? Forget about food miles. What about poop miles?

It has long been a pet peeve of mine when people talk about food miles as if that is the most accurate measure of the food's carbon footprint. I was glad to see my biases confirmed in a liberal magazine.

Food miles aren't the only consideration that seems to be bunk. The organic movement, in general, seems to be inefficient.
In fact, most of the familiar candidates for alternative food would have trouble operating on the kind of scale necessary for a world of 6.7 billion people. Consider what it would take to make our farm system entirely organic. The only reason industrial organic agriculture can get away with replenishing its soils with manure or by planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops is that the industry is so tiny—making up less than 3 percent of the US food supply (and just 5.3 percent even in gung-ho green cultures like Austria's). If we wanted to rid the world of synthetic fertilizer use—and assuming dietary habits remain constant—the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure) would more than double, possibly triple, the current area of farmland, according to Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba. Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming—making this clearly only a theoretical notion."

But, lucky for you, the dear reader, I didn't feel like throwing out a blog post pointing out organic and locally grown is actually bad for the environment.
Then Alice Waters put me over the edge on Sunday night's “60 Minutes”. Mind you, I respect Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. I think she's a very important figure in American cuisine. But, quite frankly, I don't think she's much of a fan of cities, rainforests, poor people or the environment.
Waters told Stahl she rarely goes into a regular supermarket. "I'm looking for food that's just been picked. And so, I know when I go the farmer's market that you know, they just brought it in that day."

"I have to say, it's just a luxury to be able to do that," Stahl remarked.

Her cooking "equipment" includes a fireplace in her kitchen.

Not sure if it was the roaring fire in the kitchen or the "fast and easy" part - is she kidding? But Stahl said it was one of the best breakfasts of her life.

So how environmentally friendly do you think it is for the average homeowner to cook their food over an open fire in their kitchen? Yet that is what Ms. Waters did on the show (the egg she cooked fabulous, by the way, as did the rest of the breakfast).

"You have been pushing for a vegetable garden at the White House for years. Rose garden? Forget that. You want a broccoli garden?" Stahl asked.

"I have been talking nonstop about the symbolism of an edible landscape at the White House. I think it says everything about stewardship of the land and about the nourishment of a nation," Waters said.

Asked if she thinks she'll achieve such a garden at the White House, Waters told Stahl, "Well, I'm very hopeful. I've always liked the idea of doing press conferences at the compost heap."

Never mind the symbolism of the US turning back into an agrarian society, which would probably make Ms. Waters happy. We don't have enough land to feed all the people on the planet the way Ms. Waters wishes to feed us (mind you, if she wants to feed me in this way, I'm perfectly happy to accept).

The sad thing is people haven't thought through food miles and organic food. I'll leave it to 12th and Main to make the point about urban density that wouldn't be possible if every home had their own garden. We simply can't shit like this in any kind of large scale way. So what I like to do is top my vegetables with a little bit of Ortho which adds great flavor and is good for the environment. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to build a wood fire and put an egg on a spoon so I can cook it over that fire.


Mar said...

Have you read M. Pollan yet? Read him!!! As for Waters and the idea of organic food, this society will never fully commit to healthy eating so I'm pretty sure the rain forests are safe. and if we have houses and land, why not throw up some tomatoes and peppers, there's nothing like picking a tomato when it actually ripens ON THE VINE then eating it 4 minutes later. shockingly better than anything in the store. I think people forget what REAL food tastes like, we've becomes drones eating fast and in our car, instead of embracing each morsel as it passes our lips.

karen said...

Love the blog, but have a hard time reading white type on light brown backround.

JJSKCK said...

Great post, Bull. I've wrestled with this issue myself, and there's no clear answer because none of the numbers make sense.

Example: this person says a pound of beef uses almost a gallon of fuel and over 5,000 gallons of water? Unleaded is $1.79/gallon (diesel is more) and midwestern water is about $1.50 per 1,000 gallons. You're at $9.29/lb before you've even paid anyone. If I can't trust your ability to do simple arithmetic, I'm sure as hell not going to trust you to explain the trickle-down of hormones and pesticides.

Bottom line? I try hard to eat a balanced diet, but sometimes my vegetables are of the frozen variety. Organic food tastes no better than regular food. I buy fresh food when I can.

I guess I've just chosen not to worry about this stuff. My head is not in the sand; I just think stressing about it is far more deleterious to one's health.

m.v. said...

I am kinda torn on the issue,on one hand I can't stand organic-loving douchebags just as I can't stand followers of any other cult.on the other hand, where I come from people in the cities were often given a plot of land to supplement crappy goverment food supply. in this country tons of people have backyard which they use to grow grass and plant flying-crap and leaves producing trees, where one could easily plant something edible and maybe and apple or a cherry tree. some years ago i suggested to a coworker to plant grapes to cover his deck, now he enjoys grapes AND shade every year and no maintenance is needed.
this post is almost too serious for this blog but the ending made it fit right in.

Anonymous said...

Damn hippies. 60s is over. Get on with it.