The real cost of food

Sometime last year I published a recipe using chuchu also called chayote or vegetable pear. It was the first time I’d come across this odd looking vegetable and I thought I’d give it a go. Seeing that chuchu is from South America, someone had a go at me for not sticking to what is “local”.

The “local is best” argument is part of an alternative food movement that has gained significant ground over the past decade or so. The members of the alternative food movement also argue that “small is better” when it comes to farming, organic food is superior to conventional processed food, and that we should, as far as possible, stick to food that was produced within a radius of a hundred miles or so of were we live, and that small backyard urban vegetable gardens are the way to go.

I have many food friends that feel quite passionate about the topic, and as a result have had many heated discussions about the topic. In some instances I left the conversation feeling like I just did battle with a religious fundamentalist. Tired of overly emotional arguments that show little consideration for fact or complexity, I decided to do a little reading of my own just to help me understand the issues a little better. After all, I devoted much of my professional life thus far to doing research.

It is true that our modern food system does have an enormous negative impact on our ecological well-being. At the same time, we live in a world that is insatiable, constantly hungry and in need for more food. It is a fact that traditional agriculture could not feed the world, and as such, the modern food system is a response to our ever-increasing need for food, both for humans and for animals. After all, we also need to feed our food.

Irrespective which side of the debate you’re on, we all have to come to terms which the fact that the world is not equal, least of all when it comes to producing food. Some countries are better at it than others. Their soil quality, climate, topography and general weather conditions are better and more suited for certain produce. As a result, they become more efficient at producing at lower cost. Others produce food despite their inferior soil quality, weather conditions, topography and climate. But they will never become as efficient, and hence production costs are much higher.

Those who argue that local is always best often ignore these realities. Not everyone can produce everything, and that is a simple fact. Period. Thus, it is only natural that foods would flow from more efficient and well-endowed places to places of shortage. This localistas argue non-local food contribute to excessive carbon omissions due to transportation. Yet, I wish the matter were as simple as that. Firstly, let us start by asking the obvious question: “What is local?” Truth is, there is no agreement, everyone seems to have his or her own definition depending on the cause they represent, and the criteria often vary depending on the product. Next time someone says “eat or buy only local”, ask them to explain and whether the same criteria apply to pork, beans, peaches and grapes, and see what they came up with.

Secondly, research has shown that transport’s contribution to the overall carbon footprint of any food product is small compared to the contribution of production and processing.  A 2008 study on food omissions in the USA have found that the production of food account for 83% of the total carbon omissions related to that food, and transport only 11%. Furthermore, the type of transport used plays a vital role in the volume of food omissions: ships are low in omissions, followed by trains, cars and planes. Consider this: French wine could have a smaller carbon footprint than “locally” produced California wines because the latter is driven cross country by trucks whereas the French wines are transported by ship. Or this: New Zealand lamb imported into the UK could have a smaller carbon footprint (transport by ship included) than “locally grown” British lamb. New Zealand lamb is reared on farms using hydro-electrical power whereas British lamb are fattened on commercially produced grains that requires high volumes of fertilisers and lots of diesel fuel during production, which accounts for its higher omissions. The same logic applies to field produced tomatoes in Spain compared to greenhouse-produced tomatoes in Scandinavia. Producers of food such as apples have figured out how to effectively store and stockpile food items such as apples. These locally produced apples are only put to market several months after the harvest.  These cooling and storage facilities add to the carbon footprint of food items even though the distance from farm to plate might only be a few miles.

Is local always better? I do not think so. Food miles might be a good indication of how far a product has traveled, and perhaps it’s freshness, but it is not a good indicator of its environmental impact.

As far as omissions during production are concerned, meat (particularly beef and lamb) and dairy products are the worst “offenders”. Not only are these animals themselves producers of green house gasses, but the production of their food adds to their carbon food print. Organic meats have smaller footprints but are more expensive to produce.

One common recommendation to help cut down the carbon footprint of our food, is to change our diet. We should not only eat less red meat, but we should also cut down on ready-made meals, learn to cook more efficiently and show greater appreciation for our ingredients.

You like fillet of beef, don’t you? Here’s the problem: everyone else likes fillet of beef. If given a choice, everyone buys fillet of beef. After all, if I can afford fillet of beef, why should I bother with the tough cuts like cheeks, or shank, or topside or flank? In case you did not know, a single cow produce only two fillets. Thus, the higher the demand for prime cuts, the more animals have to be produced and slaughtered to meet that demand. And the rest of the beast for which there is less demand? Pet food. Animal feed. Wasted. Destroyed.

I have a small vegetable garden in my backyard. To be honest, I suck at gardening. It takes too much of my time and in water alone my limp heads of cabbage might well cost me N$60 per head to grow. They are much cheaper down the road at the supermarket. I produced only two heads of cabbage this year, as well as ten strawberries, one apple, eight Markut limes, and maybe 20 lemons. Truth is my small alternative to the mighty modern food system is a failure. Depending only on my own garden, I would survive no longer than a week.

The scientists are currently better at pointing out the problem than proposing real solutions. The hardcore localistas propose solutions that are both overly romantic and unrealistic.

All this has made me depressed, so I have gone vegetarian for a few days. Here is a little dish that causes little guilt about potential damage to the environment in all its complexity. It is cheap too and requires little cooking time.

Take care. Of yourselves, those around you, and our precious earth. After all, it is the only one we’ve got.


Did your mouth water? Did you laugh or cry? Let me know!

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