Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why NOT to eat local, organic food

Every day we are forced to make decisions about food. What should we believe? Should we care about eating local, or eating organic, or even eating meat? I used to ignore some of these issues, but now I think it's essential for anyone who cares about saving lives worldwide, and/or protecting the environment, to care about them. But HOW we should care may surprise you.

Just Food is a riveting book that has the power to change a lot of our day-to-day assumptions about food. The book is written by a former local-food activist, James E. McWilliams, who had a change of heart as he uncovered scientific evidence opposing his beliefs. His book's important arguments:

  1. Consider each food issue separately. We tend to group all the food issues together into "ethical" v. "conventional". Someone who is concerned about GMO foods probably also supports organic food and local food, for example. In reality, each issue should be scientifically evaluated on its own merits. These issues include: local v. non-local, organic v. conventional, GMO v. non-GMO, vegetarian vs. meat, use of pesticides (and in fact evaluating each one), overuse of antibiotics, ethical treatment of animals, gluten-free food, large corporations v. small farms, and more. I encourage you to research each of these issues for yourself, one at a time. You might come to a different combination of conclusions, based on the evidence you find. Below is what I have found, which mostly lines up with what McWilliams puts forth so well in Just Food.

  2. Do NOT eat local, mostly. Locavores deify "food miles" as important because the more food travels, the more pollution and energy used in transport, right? Well, the math doesn't add up. First, it's important to note that transportation is only 11% of total food production energy expenditure. Second, "food miles" don't factor in economies of scale. If a huge truck transports 1,000 tomatoes from 1,000 miles away, each tomato costs 1 mile of energy. If a friendly local farmer transports 50 tomatoes from 100 miles away, his tomatoes have each used 2 miles of energy. That's a simple example, but you get the point: Local does not necessarily use less energy.

    Third, most environments are not designed for all foods. If I get local fruit in NYC in January, it's possible it was grown in a greenhouse, which uses TONS of energy. So, if you live in Florida, by all means eat local oranges. But in most places, it makes sense to truck in food from the places it grows best. If you want to eat local just because you think it tastes better, that's your prerogative, but know that many people can't tell the difference in taste tests, AND it's worse for the environment.

  3. Do NOT eat "organic", ever. I've been trying to follow this advice for years now, ever since I read these two excellent Skeptoid articles. Here's the basic logic: If pesticides are so harmful, why does non-organic agriculture use them? Because they increase crop yield, and save money and energy. Organic food thus has a lower crop yield, which means it takes more land to grow the same amount. Which means that lots of formerly-wild land and forests are being destroyed to make way for organic food. It's so ironic, and ridiculous.

    In addition, you might be surprised to learn that organic farming still uses tons of pesticides, they just have to be "naturally derived". Some of these are arguably more harmful to the environment than "un-natural" chemicals, especially since organic farms use a lot more of them (since they are less effective). To top it off, nothing has ever conclusively shown that organic food is healthier in any way, or that conventionally-grown food is harmful. Please stop supporting this snake oil industry.

  4. Support GMO foods. Here's where the "saving lives worldwide" comes into play. Simply put, our trendy food fads are rich indulgences that a majority of the world can't partake in. That would be fine, if they didn't also HURT the rest of the world. Abstaining from genetically-modified foods - for no good reason, since they have never been shown to cause any harm - reduces the demand for them, and thus their research & development. This is bad, because they have the potential to drastically help starving people in the developing world. In fact, they may be the only thing that can … it's hard to imagine a solution to the world's current hunger problems that doesn't include GMO foods in a big way. They also drastically reduce pesticide use, which is why it's so weird that environmentalists oppose them (which has always felt to me akin to a church wanting fewer abortions but also opposing birth control). Theoretically, increased GMO use could eventually render the concept of organic food moot.

    Anti-GMO advocates cite the "precautionary principle": we don't know if they might have bad side effects, so we should steer clear of them just in case. Except they never take the other side of the equation into account, namely that we do know that a world without GMO foods has bad side effects: millions of people die. It's unlikely that the bad side effects of GMO foods would be worse than that.

    Whole Foods recently announced it's going to start labeling all GMO foods. Good … buy them.

  5. Go vegetarian - even a little bit. One area where McWilliams argues along the traditional environmental lines is to advocate eating less meat. After driving cars, eating meat is probably the single thing we do as individuals that most negatively impacts the environment. We can either eat a plant that got its energy from the sun, or eat a cow that had to eat 1,000 plants over its lifetime. That's a huge difference in energy used. Cows and other animals also use up huge amounts of land for grazing. And there are a whole host of other issues that make eating meat questionable at best. Many people in developing countries are just starting to eat meat at rates approaching us in the U.S., but the earth simply will not be able to support everyone eating meat at this new higher rate.

    McWilliams put his money where his mouth is and decided to become a vegetarian. He admits it's extremely hard, so wisely advocates a compromise: if you can't convert to full veganism, just try to eat less meat, even starting with a little bit less. Cow meat is the worst in terms of the environmental impact; fish aren't nearly as bad. McWilliams envisions a sustainable future in which meat is treated as a delicacy we all partake of occasionally, rather than every meal.

  6. Support good businesses, whether big or small. Another point of contention is the conflict between giant corporate agribusiness on the one hand and small, local family farms on the other. This is a weird, partially made-up debate consisting of stereotypes. Do we all want to become farmers again? Only 2% of Americans currently work as farmers, and this is due to the economies of scale gained by large corporations over the last 100 years. In addition, there would be millions - perhaps billions - more starving people if it weren't for "big business" in food production. And only big business can take us the rest of the way as well: we're not going to be able to feed the world with small farms.

    It's still obvious, though, that agricultural corporations have a lot of problems today. However, none of these are intrinsic to the concept of a large business, and they can be reformed. More importantly, there's nothing that states that a small business is going to be inherently more ethical. Both are just made up of people.

  7. Do NOT cook at home. It's weird that locavores have fixated on optimizing the energy efficiency of transportation when there are many other energy-hogging steps of food production. (For example, studies have shown that people burn more energy in their cars to get to farmer's markets to buy local organic food, since these tend to be farther away than grocery stores.) Cooking at home is a huge expenditure of energy. Imagine using one whole oven and all its heat just to cook one meal, versus a restaurant using a larger oven to cook 100 meals. Restaurants simply use less energy per meal than home cooking does.

    McWilliams only mentions this issue briefly. Admittedly, this one is a hard sell. We all can't afford to eat out every day. But it's another example of how thinking about each step in our food consumption process can help us question our assumptions about what is healthiest and what is best for the planet.
All of the issues above have been drastically oversimplified in order to present them here. They are complex issues that resist easy solutions. None of the things I advocate above imply that our current, "conventional" food system doesn't have terrible flaws that should be reformed. I encourage you to read Just Food and anything else you can find, and come to your own objective conclusions about what food choices to make to best support yourself, your family, the environment, and all the world's people.