Big and small questions about food

I’ve just returned from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference feeling optimistic about the potential to change the way we grow food, cook and eat. Maybe it’s the wine, the seafood, and the wonderful fruits and vegetables (fried artichokes!) from nearby California farms, but I don’t think so. More likely it’s the passion that food reformers bring to their work, and my sense that more people are coming to understand that that we need to get smarter about how our food is produced. Our food system is depleting the earth’s resources and making us sick, even as 1 billion people around the world go hungry. It’s got to change, and it can change–so long as we don’t get distracted by small questions about food and lose sight of the big ones.

Take the brouhaha over labeling food containing genetically-modified organisms. A national petition drive to get the FDA to require labels for GMOs has collected more than 1 million signatures, as well as a ballot initiative in California to require labels. What, exactly, will these campaigns accomplish? There’s a broad scientific consensus that GMOs are no worse (or better) for human health than crops developed using using traditional breeding methods.

Then there’s the discussion about “food miles” and eating local. The USDA promotes farmers’ markets and a Know Your Farmer program. Walmart is buying more local food. But to what end? Shipping food, even long distances, accounts for only a fraction of agriculture’s environmental footprint. And there’s nothing “green” about driving a truck with a few bushels of fruits and vegetables to a suburban farmer’s market 50 or 75 miles away.

Now, before you get annoyed with me, let’s stipulate that transparency is laudable, “local” tends to be fresher than “global” and browsing around a farmer’s markets is a pleasant way to pass time on a weekend morning. But the big question about food is this: How can agriculture meet the world’s growing need for food while doing less environmental harm? That was the topic of an excellent presentation in Monterey by Jonathan Foley, an ecology professor and the director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. [click to continue...]

Organic food is not as “green” as you think


To Hindus, cows are sacred. Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) and Muslim dietary laws (halal) prohibit pork consumption. Traditional Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Religion and food have forever been intertwined. Food is deep, emotional stuff.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that devotees of organic food often embrace with quasi-religious fervor the practice of growing food without synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. [See, for example, my blogpost about Maria Rodale.] But if we want to understand impact of organic agriculture on the planet and on our health, science and not faith ought to guide us.

New scientific research points to a key drawback of organic agriculture, unfortunately: It is typically less efficient and productive than conventional growing methods. That’s a problem for fans of organic because the world has a limited supply of farmland, a billion or so undernourished people, a growing population, an expanding middle class and therefore a vast appetite for affordable and nourishing food. If, in fact, organic methods are less productive, scaling up the production of organic food at will require more land, contribute to deforestation and cost more than growing our food using conventional methods. That suggests that organic methods alone can’t feed the world in a sustainable way. [click to continue...]