Friday, June 25, 2010

A farewell to sustainable foods

The Freakonomics blog recently posted a farewell address from agricultural economist William A. Masters. Masters is transitioning from Perdue University to Tufts University and had some interesting comments on what a "sustainable food system" should look like:

"People say they want to buy local and artisanal food so as to promote the local economy, or to avoid environmental damage from long-distance transport. But when scholars investigate these claims, they may turn out to be very fragile. What if organic, local, traditional and artisanal products don’t actually deliver a healthier, more secure and sustainable food system?

"This is not a hypothetical question. Right now, the preponderance of evidence is pointing in that direction.

"It seems likely that improved health, security and sustainability will actually come from other kinds of intervention, such as more rigorous control of e. coli or salmonella, limiting fertilizer runoff from conventional agriculture, and building more efficient supply chains from tropical to temperate countries. These more effective measures don’t preclude but also don’t support the pursuit of organic, traditional, local and artisanal qualities that food consumers are demanding."
What also interests me is that he left some room for respecting the wishes of consumers. Even if the health, environment and economic arguments are false, there is still a place for consumers to have their own way. After a fair criticism of the scares food writers are dredging, Masters said:

"Eventually I hope to do some writing for popular rather than academic audiences, to help replace what I see as misleading stories about health and the environment with a more accurate narrative about what’s actually desirable in higher quality foods.

"My working title is Food without Fear, aiming to help readers enjoy various qualities without a misplaced sense of fear or guilt that shopping for conventional carrots at Wal-Mart will harm themselves or others, or a misplaced sense of foolishness about paying five times as much for a more delicious organic carrot on a sunny day at a farmers’ market. Plenty of smart people do both those things, and they should not feel fearful, guilty or foolish about it."
Well put. I look forward to reading when it comes out.


  1. Localism is romantic and delicious, but impractical.

    Industrial agriculture is efficient, but ecologically unsustainable.

    Real solutions will always be found in that uncomfortable crux called compromise :-D

  2. How is industrial agriculture unsustainable? Even if the food companies are currently depleting nutrients from the soil, that doesn't mean that they won't take the initiative to fix the problem so they can continue to grow food from the land they already own.

  3. Unsustainable the way it is now. Hence the compromise. Presently there is little effort and interest by industrial food producers (beyond the occasional token research) to conduct any land reclamation. There is the risk that it wont be profitable until AFTER a critical collapse - and forgive me for not wanting to wait and put my trust into highly centralized corporate power for solutions that will benefit consumers. I believe I've explained my disdain for reactive measures before.

    As for examples:

    There is the massive amounts of concentrated waste. Yes, small organic farms may collectively produce more overall - but they do so in an environment intentionally designed to handle it. (for instance grass fed beef fertilizing their own food. That's a very broad example - I'm obviously not a scientist) Yes - we can clean, but it's also not profitable or easy yet.

    There is reduced bio-diversity and its inherent hazards. The problems that arise in breeding dogs for aesthetics are shared when you grow food so that it fits through the machines used to process it or so that it looks perfect on a store shelf.

    Also, I'm no expert - but something else tells me that a bio-system that took millions of years to balance shouldn't simply be cast aside. But I am being purely subjective now.

    And on that note...

    Outside of sustainability - I also consider the moral issue of animal treatment in industrial production. I am disgusted by the way animals are handled in industrial farms. I do believe that humans are on an upward path when it comes to our morality. I view decreased violence (per capita) as evidence. I think it's only natural that our compassion for other forms of life will expand as well.

    But I know I stand out from the norm in that respect and I'd like to clarify that while I praise decreased consumption of animal products (for other more practical reasons too) I would NOT force anyone to refrain from animal consumption or support policy that did so. I think that is cruel and militant vegans who say otherwise are ignorant of our biology and psychology.