I’ve had another bout of being busy, and haven’t been able to get to blog-writing for the past two weeks, but perhaps the time has added some perspective to my recent mini-hobby—food. How do our eating habits affect the planet? Can my food choices change things for the better? My feeling was that our choices do indeed matter, so the other week I decided that I needed to step it up, and to completely quit supporting the pesticide industry, and the herbicide industry, and the cruelty of factory farming, by making sure that all of the food I bought was organic. It only lasted two weeks. But, it was an interesting experiment, and it underscored how complicated our life choices can be in the real world.
So, the short version—the organic, all-natural, and local foods were really tasty. They all seemed to be of very high quality, in addition to being organic. Fresh baked bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and cheese from cows that graze on grass, creamy yellow butter, local eggs from free-range birds living natural lives. In addition, many of the companies producing this food are socially-conscious, and pay fair wages, or donate to the World Wildlife Federation, or protect African elephants. We are also lucky enough to have an amazing store here, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. Upon starting the all-organic experiment, I had wondered what ingredients I would have to do without if I chose to buy only these types of foods. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that virtually all normal ingredients have a locally-available option that’s organic or sustainable—flour, rice, beans, fruits and veggies, milk and eggs, olive oil, beer and wine, teas and coffee, cheese, and locally and naturally raised chicken, pork, and grass-fed beef, and, at other stores in town, sustainably caught seafood from the Gulf of Maine. A small downside—slightly more cooking and planning was required under the new, all-organic food plan, but we were eating like kings. We eat well anyway, but these were all fantastic, near-gourmet meals. Great food, family time cooking together, and purchases that were supporting people who were doing some really good things, in all manner of sustainable ways.
But, despite all of this wonderfulness, a few problems began to creep into the plan. First, while available, these foods cost more. As a family we were already purchasing quite a bit of organic and natural food, but we also buy a fair amount of “conventional” industrial food at the bigger stores. And while we’re fortunate to make good incomes, food for our family of five, even as we normally purchase it, is one of our larger monthly expenses. While I was surprised to find some organic options at nearly the same price as “conventional” (bulk olive oil and freshly-ground peanut butter are two that come to mind), most organic options, either due to the scale at which they are produced, or the extra costs of production, cost significantly more. Organic milk, cheese, most meats, and apples are nearly double the price of conventionally produced options. Taken as an entire group, organic items seem to run about a third more than conventional. For any given item the extra cost might only be a dollar or so, but over the course of a month, a 30% higher grocery bill could cost hundreds of additional dollars.
Now, there’s a chance that this extra cost could be offset by buying in bulk, and carefully choosing meal options, and buying local foods in season, and taking lunch to work instead of buying it there, etc. But, for the time being, the cost alone forced me to abandon the 100% organic plan, at least until I have time to give it some more thought.
And, cost wasn’t the only complexity. Upon reflection, I realized that an “organic” label alone doesn’t tell a complete story about the sustainability of a food option, although it certainly helps. Here’s an example—milk choices. In order of price, I seem to have about four different levels of milk options when I go to purchase milk. For roughly $3.50 a gallon, I can buy mass-produced, store-brand milk from the local big-name grocery store. For $3.99, I can buy a gallon of conventionally farmed milk from the local dairy, or for $3.99 I can buy a half-gallon of organic milk from Wisconsin, or, for $4.99, a half-gallon of local, organic milk from really happy cows pastured on grass from small-scale farms just up the road. That’s quite a range of prices—from $3.50 to the equivalent of $9.98 a gallon. But, to just take the middle two options—which is better, organic milk from 900 miles away, or more “conventional” (but rBGH-free) milk from a local confinement dairy? I don’t actually know—how do the carbon footprints of these two choices compare? How unhappy are the well-cared for cows in the barns up the road, even though they don’t get out much?
Similar difficulties arise with other items. Organic asparagus or raspberries might be great, but if they’re out of season and have been flown in from Peru, then it’s probably not a good environmental choice. Likewise with, say, organic almonds. The organic part is great, but if they’re raised in gigantic mono-culture orchards with no habitat for natural pollinators, then that’s perhaps not the best choice, either. Then there are the items that aren’t certified as “organic” but are produced using methods that are very close to that standard—how does one judge? Or, what’s better—organic production of crops that are annuals and require tilling and therefore result in soil erosion, or near-organic production of perennials? What’s better, Fair Trade wine from South Africa, or local wine from down the road? No matter how you slice it, it often comes up more gray than black and white.
Then, in addition to all of these factors, there’s another, perhaps even bigger, question—what if organic was hands-down the most sustainable option, but organic yields per acre were lower—could we feed the world this way? Even more difficult—could growing food organically also feed the addition billions that will be joining us in the next few decades? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then we need another plan, and we need it pretty fast. I’ve heard this charge before—that organic can’t feed the world, that it would simply require too much space. So, I did some reading, including articles in Scientific American (“Will Organic Food Fail to Feed the World?“), WorldWatch Institute (“Can Organic Farming Feed Us All?“), and a Huffington post overview of the recent UN report on this topic, among others. The bottom line seems to be this— that organic yields would go down compared to the most chemically and carbon-intensive farming in the industrial world, but might go way up in the developing world. BUT—this question of yields seems to be, on the whole, something of a red herring. Continue reading