Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Earth Day: In celebration of affluent middle class fetishes?

Last Friday was earth day, and across the country I can guarantee a lot of attention was given to eating sustainably, with a focus on local,natural,and organic food. I doubt much emphasis was given to the sustainability of modern food supply chains made possible by large agribusinesses like Cargill, ADM, or Wal-Mart, or the positive environmental impact of biotechnology. As economist Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek states regarding sustainability:

"No word currently in vogue among Very Smart and Oh-So-Concerned People smuggles in more mistaken presumptions wrapped in a sentiment that no one in his or her right mind can disagree with than “sustainability.”

Let's look at these presumptions about sustainable agriculture.

Eating Local

One presumption is that eating local implies that food has to travel less, and as a result leads to less energy use. However, this precludes the notion that modern food supply chains and their efficiencies can actually be close competitors to, if not exceed local food in their greenness. As pointed out here in National Geographic (citing this research Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 3508–3513) here from the USDA, and here from UC Davis, local foods are often not as energy or climate friendly as those we get from more industrial sources.

Eating Natural

Natural food often implies  grass fed, hormone and antibiotic free livestock. However, there are many reasons that corn, hormones, and antibiotics can add a little green to your plate. Based on research from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Alex and Dennis Avery (in The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production, Center for Global Food Issues) found that grain feeding in combination with growth enhancing pharmaceuticals results in nearly a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to natural grass fed livestock. This is corroborated by research from Jude Capper, which found that for every 1 million dairy cows utilizing the hormone rbST,  the annual decrease in global warming potential is equivalent to removing 400 thousand cars from the road annually.


Organic foods have particular restrictions related to biotechnology- essentially zero tolerance on GMO ingredients.  This is a major drawback to trying to 'go green' on an all organic diet. According to research from the USDA, biotechnology has led to large reductions (and in some cases total elimination) of many toxic chemicals. According to research from PG Economics, in 2009 alone,  greenhouse gas reductions associated with biotechnology were equivalent to removing 7.8 million cars from the road.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with local, organic, or natural food. I am a regular consumer of certain local and organic brands, and frequent places like Trader Joe's fairly often (despite the nearest location is 70 miles away). The problem is, that local, organic, and natural have become almost like a fetish to many sustainability enthusiasts, and this distraction has kept many well intending environmentalists (and the media and perhaps even some educators) from noticing the drastic improvements in the sustainability of modern agriculture.  As a result many of earth day celebrations have become occasions for indulging in these affluent middle class fetishes at the expense of exploring a greener world of possibilities offered by modern agriculture.

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