Guest Commentary: Book of the Year falls plenty short.

Posted By admin on August 4, 2010

by HSU Wildlife Professor Matt Johnson, July 2010

Cheap empty calories, subsidies that distort reality, and a blatant disregard for environmental facts – these are some of the reasons for the failure of our current food system. Ironically, this year’s “Book of the Year” fails for analogous reasons. The book, Plenty, by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, is a memoir of the authors’ year-long experimental attempt to evade the problems of our food system by eating foods produced within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver.

The writing is full of empty calories that entertain, but the reader is left hungry for substantive information. The book amuses with cute anecdotes of the couple’s struggles and triumphs in preparing meals devoid of familiar staples rendered unavailable by their arbitrary 100-mile rule, such as a wheatless sandwich with “bread slices” made from turnips. I laughed out loud reading about their escapade smuggling a beloved hunk of mutschli cheese across the US-Canada border. The pair also weaves into the book interesting local history of the Vancouver region and its farmers. But the reasons or potential advantages of their culinary constraints are not explained fully. Instead, their experiment comes across more like a gimmicky environmental hair shirt – voluntary discomfort to atone the environmental guilt of living in an affluent country marked by huge environmental footprints, and cheap convenient food accessible all the time, regardless of the season. A more engaging, and informative, memoir of a local eating experiment is the Kingsolvers’ Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In contrast to the more urban-oriented Plenty, the Kingsolvers’ book is enriched with stories of the family’s efforts to grow their own produce and poultry, ambitions common also in Humboldt County.

Subsidies prop up otherwise nonviable enterprises, ostensibly for the greater good. The topic of environmental and ethical considerations of food is opportune and important, and Plenty’s appeal is amplified by its timeliness; in effect, the book is subsidized by a newly emerging national food conscience. The book is divided into short chapters corresponding to months of the year, and many readers’ interest in the topic will quickly propel them through all 262 pages. But I can’t help thinking that if “food miles” wasn’t such a trendy phrase, this book would have passed by inconspicuously. In places the writing is elegant and clever; but in others it slips to hollow phrases such as, “It was, like, everything was connected.” In contrast, Michael Pollan’s far-more popular Omnivore’s Dilemma treats a similar topic but is a gripping and demanding read, written with a cogent voice and enough wit, personal investigation, and substantive analysis to engage a much larger audience, even one without a predisposition to the topic. Correspondingly, Pollan’s book hit hard, winning numerous awards and catching the attention of many well outside “green” circles.

Plenty’s most troublesome shortcoming is its disregard for the realities of carbon footprints versus other environmental impacts, efficiencies of scale, and global trade. It’s true that transporting distant foods by air across the globe to supply consumers with out-of-season produce is horribly inefficient and an unsustainable luxury. But it is simply naïve to assume that locally produced foods always have low environmental impacts. The authors irresponsibly chose to omit a more nuanced acknowledgment of the complexities of the environmental ethics of food.

For at least four reasons, distant food may sometimes be the better choice. First, transportation costs represent an average of only 11% of the total carbon footprint of foods, with production contributing 83% . Sometimes the most environmentally friendly foods are produced far away under conditions naturally favorable for the crop. This is particularly evident when the local foods involve energy-intensive methods, such as when they are grown in heated greenhouses or with conventional fertilizers (which are derived from fossil fuels). A local food item grown with synthetic fertilizer will often have a larger footprint than a distant organic one.

Second, regional environmental advantages for a distant crop can lower environmental impacts and, when coupled with large scale transportation by ship and rail or road, can outweigh the costs of transport. For example, a study in 2003 concluded that orange juice concentrate shipped in bulk from Brazil to Europe had a lower impact than local apple juice produced within Europe . Non-perishables with high calorie-to-weight ratios (such as dried grains) are some of the best candidates for efficient transportation; a fact that should have alleviated the authors’ agonizing cravings for wheat flour that they had trouble sourcing within 100 miles of Vancouver. Moreover, transportation costs include those used to get the food from the market to our homes. For perspective consider this: driving the average car just five extra miles to access locally produced onions at a farmer’s market will put as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as shipping 17 pounds of onions half way around the planet, from New Zealand to London.

Third, carbon emissions are far from the only impact of our food systems. Crops and cultivation practices locally inappropriate, such as broadcast irrigating water-demanding crops in arid regions, can hugely outweigh the carbon benefits of local production. In addition, social benefits can sometimes favor distant over local foods. Buying fair-trade-certified foods exported from developing countries can help support some of the world’s poorest farmers, and in some cases avoid social complications of locally-grown foods whose low prices are reliant on illegal laborers working in unfair conditions.

Fourth, an overemphasis on where food was produced masks inequities in the resources required to produce different types of foods. Because meats and dairy products lay one tier up the trophic pyramid from plants, unavoidable natural laws of thermodynamics mean eating them is less efficient than eating the plants themselves. Consequently, you can shrink your footprint far more by changing what you eat, rather than where the food came from. According to a 2008 report from Carnegie Mellon University, going meat- and dairy-free one day a week is more environmentally beneficial than eating locally every single day.

Of course, eating locally has many non-environmental advantages including better taste, supporting local economies, encouraging food sovereignty, and connecting people to their foods, their landscapes, and the farmers working within them. Moreover, eating foods that are local, organically produced, seasonal, and regionally appropriate will nearly always be the best choice environmentally. Indeed, I’m a strong proponent of eating seasonal food from local organic farmers. But it is naivety to hold up local eating as the environmental high ground without acknowledging the truths of natural economies. And we should expect more from a book of the year.

[1] Singer, P. and Mason, J.  2006.  The Ethics of What We Eat.  Rodale, Inc. (8/10/2010-onorder @ HSU)

[2] Schlich, E. and U. Fleissner. June 2003. Comparison of regional energy turnover with global food.  LCA Case Studies, p. 1–6.

[3] Jones, A.  Eating Oil.  2001.  Sustain & Elm Farm Research Centre. London. Case Study 2.

[4] Weber, C.L. and Matthews, H.S. 2008. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology 42:3508–3513.

About The Author

Mary Kay is the HSU Library Collection Development Librarian and Electronic Resources Coordinator. She has been coordinating the BOY effort at HSU for four years.


One Response to “Guest Commentary: Book of the Year falls plenty short.”

  1. Joe says:

    I have been trying to convey these points to my strict “eat local only” friends for a while. I still eat local for the most part (I love Arcata’s Farmers Market!) but it is ignorant to think that eating locally is the magic bullet to solving the problems in our food infrastructure.