Not a nice guy Per Se May 21, 2012Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: agriculture, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
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Illustrious chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Adoriz made some waves in the food world last week by unapologetically announcing that they have more important things to worry about than the ethics of the food they serve. In an interview in the New York Times, Keller and Adoriz pooh-pooh supporting local farmers, defending food traditions, and reducing food miles, all sacred cows of the sustainable food movement. Predictably, they were raked over the coals by food writers everywhere, whose consciences will presumably no longer allow them the pleasure of spending half a thousand dollars to grab a bite at Keller’s restaurant Per Se.
Is the sustainable food movement’s collective “tsk tsk” warranted? Yes and no. Keller and Adoriz are right that they are not responsible for supporting local farmers or defending food traditions. If you like Farmer Joe just down the road and want to buy your rutabagas from him, by all means do so. But a farmer from Mayberry doesn’t “deserve” your food dollars more than a farmer from Mexico or a farmer from Malaysia just because he happens to live near you, as I’ve discussed in a past post. While you might enjoy keeping your money within your community, ethics doesn’t demand it.
Food traditions are even further from ethical concerns; eating traditionally is a pastime, not a duty. So I have no problem with Keller and Adoriz focusing on innovating rather than preserving. When it comes to food miles, though, I start to get queasy. It’s not clear whether patronizing small local farms really minimizes your food miles; it depends on things like how far you have to drive to get to a farmers market versus a supermarket, for example. (If you have to drive a lot further to get to a farmers market, your driving contributes more to global warming and ups the carbon footprint of the food you buy.) If Keller and Adoriz were questioning the link between buying local and food miles/ global warming/ sustainability, I’d be right there with them.
But they don’t just question the link; they wash their hands of the goal. Keller asks, “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” And Adoriz follows up with “…to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”
The rebuttals to these chefs’ statements are so obvious and timeworn that I find it difficult to voice them in any way that’s not utterly boring. Yes, what you do makes a difference, even if it’s a small difference. So yes, it is your responsibility to worry about your carbon footprint. No, you can’t check your ethics at the door. Imagine a general saying “…to align yourself entirely with the idea of honor makes soldiers complacent and limited.”
Why be ethical? Because it’s the right thing to do :-)
Book review: No Impact Man May 16, 2012Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: book review, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
My first thought on reading the opening pages of Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man: yet another unflinchingly honest look in the mirror from a liberal with an overactive conscience. It seems to be the zeitgeist these days (think Eating Animals, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). In the end, though, the book turned out to be, dare I say it, insightful.
Disclaimer: NIM is only glancingly relevant to the topic of this blog. As part of his project to live his life without using up any of the earth’s resources, Beavan does embrace no-impact eating, but he doesn’t touch on debates about the sustainability of meat and dairy. He merely notes that the UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” blames modern beef production for a large part of climate change, and decides to go vegetarian.
But since I read it all anyway, I may as well give my two cents on NIM. For about the first two-thirds, I seesawed between enjoying anecdotes like the one about the chaos that ensued when he brought his own Tupperware to the grocery store, and being annoyed at his proselytizing. I also found his discoveries of how scaling back changed his life a bit too good to be true. Amazingly, every sacrifice Beavan and his family made on the altar of sustainability ended up making their lives easier, tastier… happier! Apparently, there was no convenience of our modern, unsustainable lifestyles – not TV, nor cars, nor air conditioning, nor toilet paper – that the Beavan family missed in the slightest. Really? But I turned around when Beavan finally admitted that going without a washing machine was no fun at all.
And in the last third of the book, I connected with what he hit upon as the real reason for our consumerist, more-is-better (unsustainable) habits: that the race to get more, more, more gives us something to distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t know what the hell the meaning of our lives is. Oh, and that the things we really care about (our health, our children) can be snatched from us by a stray bacterium or a neuron that forgets to fire.
Any book that reminds us of these fundamental truths in a fresh and immediate way is worth a read, so I’ll give a thumbs-up to NIM.
Less meat, better meat, less meat, better meat… May 7, 2012Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
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Last week Tilde Herrera at Grist published a review of a recent study suggesting that, to ward off climate change, people in developed nations (read: us) should halve our meat consumption. The link between meat and climate highlighted in this particular article is nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas released by both chemical fertilizers and animals’ manure.
Cut the amount of meat we’re eating in half, the argument goes, and we can deliver a one-two punch to nitrous oxide emissions. If we eat only half the meat, we need only half the animals. That means we can also halve the amount of feed (largely corn and soy) we currently use to raise them. In turn, that allows us to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer we apply to the land to grow that feed. Less fertilizer, less nitrous oxide.
The second part of our one-two punch is that reducing the number of animals we keep cuts the amount of manure we have to deal with. Less manure, less nitrous oxide.
I agree that we should cut our meat consumption dramatically. Americans eat an average of half a pound of meat a day, which is nuts for many reasons. But we’ve got to be careful about how we do it. Eating to save the climate is a lot more complicated than just cutting meat consumption, as I’ve discussed in prior posts. The most important question we need to ask is, what will we replace it with? If the answer is dairy, we’re in trouble, because raising dairy animals mires us in the same greenhouse gas dilemmas as raising livestock for meat. If the answer is highly processed protein substitutes like tofu-based fake meats, we reduce nitrous oxide emissions at the expense of raising fossil fuel emissions to do all that processing.
But somehow we have to get those calories, and perhaps more relevantly, that protein. (Or at least we have to get part of it; given the ubiquity of obesity in the US, it would be surprising if we really needed it all.) Once we recognize that fact, eating meat that has a relatively light greenhouse gas emissions profile – like chicken, or grassfed beef – starts to look like an attractive option. By no means does it solve all our problems, but in my opinion it’s going to be a part of any workable climate-friendly diet.
McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier April 16, 2012Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, Animal welfare, carbon footprint, chickens, climate change, cows, environment, Food ethics, Global warming, pigs
At the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat meat sustainably or humanely in an opinion piece in the New York Times. His claims would take a thirty-page essay to dissect, but I’d like to at least get a start here, because the facts are a lot more complicated than McWilliams would have you think.
First McWilliams notes in a series of one-liners that grassfed cows emit more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than conventional grain-finished ones, and that pastured chickens have a similarly worse effect on global warming than their conventional cousins. It’s hard to refute his claim about chickens because he doesn’t give an argument or a source, but on grassfed cows the science is still in flux. Several studies have confirmed higher methane emissions from grassfed cows, but others suggest that it depends on which grasses they eat. Further, methane emissions can be offset by the carbon sequestration that maintaining grasslands for grazing (versus converting them to cropland for feed) allows. This last point – that grazing lands can be good for the climate – is one that McWilliams completely ignores when he argues, later, that tearing down rainforests to graze cattle is hugely unsustainable. He’s right, but that means we should avoid meat from cattle from deforested land – not that we should avoid eating cattle grazed on native American prairie.
Next McWilliams turns to claims that we can raise animals humanely, pointing out that even pastured chickens come from industrial breeds which quickly go lame as they peck through their sunny yards. I would add, the birds from which these chickens are bred often don’t get the benefit of pasture, and are chronically hungry to boot. So McWilliams is right that we should avoid these industrial strains, but wrong that they are our only option. Though few in number, there are some farmers who use alternative breeds. I recently bought a lovely (and delicious) Freedom Ranger chicken from Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland that is just such an alternative.
Also on the humane front, McWilliams points out that humanely raised pigs still get nose rings to prevent them from rooting around. Again, a more accurate statement would be that many but not all pigs get this treatment. And even when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that their lives are completely ruined by it. “Humanely-raised” cannot mean “raised without a moment of discomfort”; if it did, none of us would qualify as humanely raised (and our parents might just take exception to that).
Finally, McWilliams attacks Joel Salatin, whom he calls the “guru” of rotational grazing, for getting his chicken feed off-farm. Again, the fact that one farmer buys his feed doesn’t mean they all do; I have visited several farms that are entirely self-sufficient with feed. The only thing they buy is the odd mineral supplement, just as we might buy vitamins for ourselves. But it’s quite a leap of logic to say that even farms that buy feed are therefore unsustainable. You have to look at how the feed is grown, and then even more importantly you have to look at the caloric and nutritional benefits of the meat that is ultimately produced from the animals that eat the feed, and compare it to the alternatives. That’s what requires a thirty-page paper to do. Suffice it to say here, once again, that the story is not as simple as McWilliams would like us to believe.
Can organics feed the world? May 11, 2010Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming, organic
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Robert Paarlberg pointedly decries the Luddite sympathies of elite Western foodies in a recent piece in Foreign Policy. In “Attention Whole Foods Shoppers,” Paarlberg argues that today’s trendy push to make food sustainable, which he defines as “organic, local, and slow,” hampers our ability to solve a more important food problem: world hunger. Defenders of sustainability, swayed by romantic visions of pre-industrial agriculture, want to take us back to the days before artificial fertilizer and genetically-engineered seeds. If successful, they will prevent the developing world from taking advantage of the huge productivity gains that those tools bestowed on the West, thereby ensuring a future as dogged by hunger as its past.
Paarlberg makes several good points, including that farmers in the developing world need access to improved infrastructure (like better roads to bring products to market) and that they would benefit from food-safety improvements such as reliable refrigeration and packaging. Of course, none of these points would be denied by any advocate of sustainable food, so Paarlberg is attacking a bit of a strawman here. I’d like to focus on one of his more controversial views, which centers on the “organic” part of sustainability. Paarlberg states that organic farming is not friendlier to the environment than conventional farming; that, in fact, it’s worse for the environment because it requires the use of more land to grow the same amount of food. If we force organic practices down the throats of developing nations, then, we aren’t relieving their hunger, and we’re actually speeding up the degradation of their natural resources.
Paarlberg cites two reasons for rejecting organic farming. The first is that without the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which is not allowed under organic standards, developing countries would need a lot more animal manure, which means they’d have to do a lot more land- and resource-intensive animal grazing. Oddly, to support this argument Paarlberg uses statistics from the US:
Less than 1 percent of American cropland is under certified organic production. If the other 99 percent were to switch to organic and had to fertilize crops without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, that would require a lot more composted animal manure. To supply enough organic fertilizer, the U.S. cattle population would have to increase roughly fivefold. And because those animals would have to be raised organically on forage crops, much of the land in the lower 48 states would need to be converted to pasture.
This is neither true of the US nor applicable to the developing world. Not true of the US because cattle are not the only source of manure. Currently, excess manure produced by conventional livestock production (especially swine production) results in both miles of manure lagoons and toxic overapplication of manure in areas adjacent to livestock facilities. Redistributing this manure to crops that are currently artificially fertilized would greatly reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, but fertilizer is so cheap relative to the cost of transporting manure that doing so is not financially sound. (Pricing the environmental externalities of artificial fertilizer into its cost would address this problem.) Nor is Paarlberg’s point applicable to the developing world. Meat consumption in the developing world is forecast to rise dramatically through 2050 simply due to increased demand as populations become richer, not because of the need for natural fertilizer.* Nonetheless, with more abundant meat comes, inevitably, more abundant shit. One might argue that meat consumption won’t rise without a prior rise in conventional, non-organic, crop production to feed the engine of intensive animal agriculture, but there is an alternative: the development of farms which raise both plants and animals in a self-sustaining balance (more on that below).
Paarlberg’s second argument against organic methods is an oft-repeated one: that organic crop yields are lower than conventional yields, so farming organically requires more land to produce the same amount of food. In his words, “Organic field crops also have lower yields per hectare. If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined.” Implication: organic techniques in the developing world would require massive deforestation there.
Even proponents of organic, such as the folks at the Organic Center, agree that organic crop yields are generally lower than conventional yields. However, it’s important to realize that most organic agriculture still makes use of low-performing monocultures. All the organic lettuce we Whole Foods shoppers get from Earthbound Farm comes from land that is dedicated purely to lettuce production, and producing monocultures this way results in soil that is lower-yielding. Superior yields have been produced by farmers who reject monoculture crops in favor of so-called “stacked” production methods that rotate plant and animal species frequently, but since these efforts are so new and small in scale the evidence remains purely anecdotal. In sum, we shouldn’t write off organics because they are often grown in monocultures with comparatively low yields; we should continue to explore higher-yielding ways of producing organically.
In any case, even though organic yields in the West are typically lower than conventional yields there, they are still far higher than conventional yields in the developing world. Michael Pollan, that foodie guru, cites a University of Michigan study in his New York Times essay Farmer in Chief demonstrating that adoption of modern organic practices in the developing world could increase food production by as much as 50%. It would seem that feeding the world and sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals.
Having said all this, I’m not insisting that organics are the way to go. The moderate in me says that there are almost certainly cases in which a judicious use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is part of an optimal food production system. But we do need to get a lot closer to the organic ideal. Paarlsberg misses his mark in dismissing that project as no more than misguided foodie elitism.
*UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, p.10.
Progress or cop-out? March 26, 2010Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, climate change, Food ethics, Global warming
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A recent op-ed in the NY Times applauded (albeit grudgingly) the development of techniques to genetically engineer animals who do not feel pain. Cutting-edge research has found a way to breed rats and mice who withdraw from painful stimuli (like hot floors) but don’t exhibit the pain response normally associated with such withdrawal. Conclusion: they are somehow experiencing the pain without it making them feel bad. If these techniques could be applied to cattle, pigs, and chickens, what a boon to the livestock industry! Then those pesky animal welfare activists wouldn’t have anything to complain about when cattle are castrated, dehorned, and branded without anesthetic, or when chickens are debeaked, or when any number of animals are left to languish with broken bones weeks before slaughter.
Well, as several replies to the op-ed demonstrated, lots of people are outraged that we humans would try to stop cruelty to farm animals not by changing our cruel practices but by inuring animals to the results. There seems to be something wrong with blithely continuing along our self-serving paths, trampling the animals along the way, and fixing things on the back-end by making sure they don’t notice. Shouldn’t we focus our “fixing-power” on the wrongdoers, not the victims? As one levelheaded letter-writer said, “Given that our current system for producing meat inflicts pain on animals, the sensible response is to change the system, not the animals.” A more amusing response: “I’d like to propose an alternative: that we consider using neuroscience and genetic engineering to modify humans so that they derive less pleasure from consuming large amounts of animal flesh and more pleasure from consuming things like tofu.”
This debate reminds me of a similar one that pops up now and again in discussions of global warming. Most people who think that global warming is real and harmful think we should devote our energies to scaling down the industrial complex that’s causing it. Consume less stuff, drive and fly less, eat less meat. Maybe, on the positive side, plant a few trees to combat the deforestation that’s one big culprit. But there is a minority who think we should devote some energy to building huge artificial carbon sinks – I always imagine big spaceships that cruise the skies gobbling carbon – so that even if we continue business as usual here on the ground, the warming that results will be reduced. Outcry: how can it be OK to continue business as usual when that’s what got us into this mess in the first place?
But in the global warming debate as well as in the animal welfare debate, none of the outraged public has really put their finger on why it’s wrong to solve our problems by fixing things on the back-end. If what makes cruelty to animals wrong is that the animals suffer from it, why isn’t any solution that eliminates that suffering equally worthy? If what makes global warming bad is rising temperatures and the havoc they may wreak, why isn’t any solution that keeps the temperature down equally acceptable? Perhaps not all solutions are created equal because not all solutions satisfy our desire to punish the perpetrators of the problems, but that desire seems more of an instinctual craving than a rational basis for choosing one solution over others. I’d have to conclude that as distasteful as these back-end solutions are, they are morally acceptable.
Meat: the new diapers March 19, 2010Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, carbon footprint, chickens, climate change, cows, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
I’m sure you recently-minted parents out there know about the diaper controversy. Disposable diapers create mountains (literally) of waste. So, maybe twenty years ago, environmentalists started to attack them as yet another example of Americans’ willingness to trade sustainability for convenience. In response, some well-meaning parents decided to go back to smelly, messy cloth diapers. But then people realized that the environmental impact of washing all those cloth diapers was no joke, either. It turned out the story wasn’t as simple as it first seemed, and it wasn’t obvious what a sustainability-minded parent should do.
The current outcry about the unsustainability of meat-eating looks headed toward a similarly unsatisfying end. Proselytizing vegetarians (among them Paul McCartney, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer) are pushing a very simple story: if you want to stop global warming, you should stop eating meat. Credible support for this argument comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claims that meat consumption is a bigger contributor to global warming than transportation. Since that report was published, the meat-bashing momentum has snowballed, culminating in one subsequently discredited study claiming that meat consumption was responsible for 51% of all global warming emissions!
If only it were that straightforward. The first problem with the blanket directive to eschew meat is that it characterizes all meat as climate-unfriendly. In fact, the global warming impact of different sources of meat (and dairy) varies widely. According to research published in Scientific American, beef cattle are thirteen times worse for the climate than chickens. And on a calorie-for-calorie basis, chicken meat is responsible for fewer greenhouses gases than plant-based foods like apples, bananas, spinach, and rice.* That means that eating low-impact meats like chicken can actually be better for the climate than eating high-impact plant-based foods. Once you start to compare low-impact meats to highly-processed vegetarian alternatives like tofu, a vegetarian diet can start to look downright irresponsible.
Not only does the meat-bashing movement disregard key distinctions between types of meat, it ignores the effects of producing meat in different ways. Nicolette Hahn-Niman elegantly defends the climate credentials of grass-fed beef in an October 2009 piece for the New York Times, and while I don’t agree with every claim she makes, her main point is valid. When cattle are raised on natural prairies – meaning that no rainforest is cleared to graze them and no grain is grown to feed them, but they simply eat naturally-occurring grasses – they have a relatively small climate footprint. That is, relative to conventionally-raised feedlot cattle. The fact that pasturing beef improves its climate “hoofprint” doesn’t, of course, prove that a diet which includes grass-fed beef is as benign as a vegetarian one (and that’s where I think Niman’s claims are overblown), but it does mean that even beef-eating doesn’t have to be quite the villain it was made out to be.
Finally, focusing on meat-eating as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions ignores other food-based sources of emissions that might actually be bigger, but are less-easily quantified. I haven’t been able to track down hard numbers on this, but commentators like James McWilliams in his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly have identified the energy used in food preparation as one of the main contributors to global warming. That means that a burger cooked in a few minutes on the stove might be a more climate-friendly dinner than a (vegan!) pot of rice and beans that requires an hour of simmering.
So a better slogan than “Stop Eating Meat to Stop Global Warming” might be “Stop Eating Conventionally-Produced Meat from Ruminants, Highly-Processed Foods, Foods Grown on Clearcut Forest and Foods Requiring Substantial Cooking to Stop Global Warming.” Think it’ll catch on?
*Calculated using greenhouse gas emissions per kg food produced for consumption in the UK (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/how_low_can_we_go.pdf) and calories per 100g food eaten (http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/13243/calories)
Industry: 1. Back-to-nature: 1. And we’re even January 22, 2010Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, carbon footprint, climate change, cows, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
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[Hypothetical debate between technophiliac conventional industrial dairy farmer (Mack) and back-to-nature ex-hippie independent dairy farmer (Meadow) on the most climate-friendly way to raise dairy cattle.]
Meadow: the fact is, cows that eat grass burp and fart less than cows that are forced to eat grain, like your feedlot cattle. So, they release less climate-destroying methane into the air. We need to go back to feeding cows what they were designed to eat: grass.
Mack: Maybe if you hadn’t smoked so much of your cherished grass in the 60s you’d still be able to do math. Your dainty little cows might emit less methane per cow than mine; but when you take into account how little milk each of them produces, it’s not such a bargain. My cows produce so much more milk than yours that it more than outweighs the extra gas they pass. The fact is, my modern dairy machine emits less methane per gallon of milk produced than your old-school farm.
Meadow: What you people never take into account when you trot out this tired line are the greenhouse gas emissions associated with making the grain that your cows eat to become so super-productive. What about the emissions associated with all the fertilizing, tilling, processing and transporting of the grain to your “modern dairy machine?”
Mack: Yeah yeah yeah, everyone knows that those emissions are peanuts compared to the actual animals’ emissions. Are you going to deny that concentrated feed, in the form of enriched grain, increases milk yield and decreases greenhouse gas emissions per gallon?
Meadow: Again, oversimplifying. OK, it is general knowledge that concentrated feed increases yield and reduces emissions (again, not including the emissions from manufacturing and transporting the concentrate). But that’s not the only thing you’re doing over there in your little shop of horrors. You’re also breeding cows for yield and nothing else, and that’s increasing emissions, even on a per-gallon of milk basis.
Mack: Bull. Breeding for higher yield means we can produce all the milk we need with fewer cows, which means a smaller herd and lower emissions, overall and per gallon of milk. Case closed.
Meadow. If only. The problem is, as you well know, that cows bred for high yield are less fertile and less healthy overall. That means you have to engineer a bigger herd because you know that a large proportion of it will be infertile (and therefore won’t produce milk) and will die young due to poor health. My naturally-raised beauties, however, are all happy and healthy down by our little red barn.
Mack: Well, we are always doing more research to maximize the combination of high yield and high fertility. Granted, we’re not there yet, but where are your numbers to show that reduced health and fertility is such a big problem that it outweighs our gargantuan milk yields?
[Cut. Where, indeed, are the numbers? Many quantitative studies of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions, misleadingly cited by one side or the other in this debate, analyze only one gas (e.g., only methane, only nitrous oxide) or only one source (e.g., only farting, only manure). Many also discuss emissions per animal, but not per unit of output, or do not include the off-farm emissions associated with inputs like fertilizer or cattle feed. One excellent 2006 study,* however, quantifies all these factors for pastured dairy cattle, and concludes that we can minimize GHG emissions by feeding generous amounts of concentrate (grain) to cattle that are bred for medium- (not high-) yield. While this study only analyzes pastured dairy cattle, these strategies also apply to feedlot dairy cattle in the US. What does it mean? From a climate perspective, the conventional dairy industry gets kudos for feeding cows grain instead of just grass, but the back-to-nature folks are right that conventional breeding for high yields is bad news. Looks like each side has something to learn from the other.]
*Lovett et al, “A Systems Approach to Quantify Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Pastoral Dairy Production as Affected by Management Regime,” Agricultural Systems 88 (2006): 156-179.
Grass-fed: something to chew on January 15, 2010Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare, Global warming.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, climate change, cows, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
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My article for Simple, Good, and Tasty says grass-fed beef may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The best solution, as always, is to know your rancher.
Book review: Just Food December 10, 2009Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, book review, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming, organic
James McWilliams styles Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly as a heroic underdog’s battle against the popular but shallow and misguided eat-local movement. He would love to drink the Kool-Aid and spend his afternoons lolling about the farmers market, he tells us, but his gosh-darned integrity just won’t allow him to sink mindlessly into the morass of locavorism.
Unfortunately his laziness won’t allow him to sustain a compelling argument for an alternative either. He briefly discusses the intriguing alternative of life-cycle assessments, according to which all the energy costs, not just the ones involved in transporting food over long distances, are calculated to determine how environmentally friendly a food is. McWilliams is of course right that it is better to look at all energy costs than only the portion that locavores are concerned with. But without a life-cycle grade on every piece of food we buy (which the government of Sweden is implementing, but is not available elsewhere in the world), how is the consumer supposed to rank the different contributions to energy use that go into food production? Should I buy a fish caught by an ocean trawler – a huge energy sink – if I can save household energy by searing it for only a couple of minutes on the stove, or should I buy dried pinto beans whose production is relatively green, but which require simmering for two and a half hours? McWilliams isn’t offering us any help here; discussing the energy-intensive components of food production, McWilliams says “these findings leave one wondering how much energy could be saved if we threw out less food, cooked smaller amounts, ate less in general, used energy-efficient ovens and refrigerators, composted all organic matter not eaten, and developed more energy-efficient menus…” Yes, they leave one wondering because McWilliams hasn’t bothered to do the calculation for us, or even helped us rank these sometimes competing priorities.
The annoying habit of substituting rhetorical questions for tough analysis pops up at other intervals in JF. When discussing – and dismissing – the possibility of scaling up local food production, McWilliams asks “…how could any storage and distribution service stay in business if it depended on seasonal produce from small growers spread over a vast region?” Well, I don’t know McWilliams, how about interviewing regional grocery chains like Lunds that are incorporating local food into their assortment to find out how their distribution chains handle it? Again, when he reviews sustainable, free-range methods of pig farming, he wonders whether all pig farming could be this way, saying that to answer that question, “One could begin by asking if the resources, labor, expert knowledge, patience, and land exist for the world to convert to such forms of pork production while maintaining the same rates of meat consumption. We don’t have the answer to this hypothetical question…” Well, we could at least begin to answer it by multiplying annual pig consumption by the average number of acres required to raise free-range pigs in places that are already doing so. And we could interview free-range pig farmers to find out how much labor they use to manage their pigs. We could, but McWilliams chooses not to.
McWilliams’ analysis is lazy in other ways, too. He cites secondary sources of important research rather than going straight to the original studies, for example when he discusses Charles Benbrooke’s work on GM soybean yields. I’ll admit that this is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s a non-trivial concern. Had McWilliams read Benbrooke’s actual report, published five years before his own book, he would have seen that Benbrooke found that herbicide application rates on GM soybeans actually went up after the initial few years of adoption, and not down, as McWilliams states.
Perhaps I’m too harsh of a critic here; McWilliams does have some interesting things to say about aquaculture, for example, and the promise of aquaponics to sustainably provide protein for a ballooning world population. The section on subsidies and how their structure should be changed to level the playing field between environmentally costly and environmentally friendly foods makes a lot of sense, although McWilliams fails to own up to the fact that in this case, leveling the playing field means increasing the prices consumers will pay for currently cheap food. Since its expense is one of the most common challenges thrown to advocates of sustainable eating, it’s a big one to ignore.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to cut McWilliams a break, especially when he has so little faith in his readers. At the end of the first chapter, when he discusses initiatives to reduce the cost of food transport like using bigger trucks, he says to us “And you’re thinking to yourself, Yawn.” If he doesn’t credit his readers with the attention span or interest level to delve deeply into these issues, then why write this book for them?