Food: It’s Complicated

Recent organic food purchases. Some of this is local, some fair-trade.

Recent organic food purchases. Some of this is local, some fair-trade.

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.

Responsibly Harvested Logo Website

Sustainably caught seafood…

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.

Fresh berries--- better from a farm near you.

Fresh berries are better choices if they haven’t had to take a plane ride.

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. There is a bigger issue that nearly dwarfs this argument about yield—the fact that huge, huge amounts of the food the world grows isn’t eaten by humans at all, but is fed to animals or used for fuel. When we feed crops to animals, we then eat the meat (or milk), but the conversion of crops into meat can be quite inefficient, as low as 5% for beef, for instance. Other animals convert feed at higher efficiencies, but often this comes at a price in animal cruelty, with poultry bred to grow so fast that their legs break under their own body weight, or animals confined so as to reduce the rate at which they burn calories. In addition to food used for animal feed, more huge amounts are used for ethanol production. (See the cover story of current National Geographic- “Feeding Nine Billion“. Note graphic in the article “How our crops are used.”) So, while we still have billions of hungry people on the planet, it seems that we currently make plenty of food—our economic systems just aren’t set up to deliver food to all the people who need it. Instead we use all the extra food to make steak and ethanol, for the world’s richer citizens. This puts this question of organic yields into quite a different perspective—when it comes to feeding the planet, it simply isn’t the most important question. Feeding the world is more of a political, cultural, and economic question, even more than a question about the mechanics of food production.

A mixed blessing- monocultures with plants that are annuals, but amazing productivity. Wheat harvest in eastern Washington.

A mixed blessing– monocultures of plants that are annuals, but amazing productivity. Wheat harvest in eastern Washington.

So, how to we make sense of all this complexity and act in ways that change the planet? What’s the plan? The other day I wrote something on the Sustainable Us facebook page to the effect of, “If we can fix agriculture we can fix half the planet, and if we fix energy, we’d fix the other half.” I wasn’t being completely serious, but that statement isn’t too far from the truth. So what’s going to change agriculture, if not personal demand and normal people voting with their dollars when they purchase food? And, once we work through the complexity and decide what to buy, how will we create economic demand if we can’t afford to eat this way? I’m not sure I have all of the answers, but let me offer up some thoughts on how we might proceed—

First, buy the organic and sustainable food if you can afford it. It’s a powerful way to spend your money in terms of economic effects; the food is healthy, free of pesticides, and tastes great. And if you can’t afford to buy all sustainable and organic, then buy what you can. Buying half organic, or a quarter organic, is still better than buying none at all. Eventually demand for sustainably-grown food will bring prices down, but unfortunately, there’s no real mechanism for this other than consumer demand. So, participate as much as you can.

Make some systems changes to lower the cost of your food. To be better able to afford the “good stuff”, buy in bulk, buy ingredients that have to be assembled (cook!), quit spending food money on snacks and fast food when you aren’t at home, eat out a bit less. In terms of daily snacks when not at home, carry a water bottle, and bring some snacks from home.

— Organic or not, avoid foods with high carbon footprints. Fresh fruits and vegetables flown in from other continents would top that list. It isn’t always about distance, though—food shipped by sea in ships might have lower carbon footprints than those trucked shorter distances across land.

— And, important enough that I’ll give it its own bullet here—switch from grain-fed, factory beef to grass-fed beef. I can’t think of a single food-purchasing habit that would have a greater impact. The list of negatives to factory beef is so long that I don’t even think I should get started here. On the other hand, grass-fed beef is a permaculture system (but know where it’s coming from—“rainforest beef” wouldn’t make the cut here, grass-fed or not), and the meat itself is much healthier. Lamb is another good choice here, it’s virtually always grass-fed. This bullet could be a huge long post in itself, but trust me on this one.

Factory farming---multitudes of problems in the making.

Factory farming—multitudes of problems in the making.

Eat less meat in general, particularly animals that are fed grain or other crops. (Chicken, pork… Even “pastured” pork is fed quite a bit of grain or other food).

Don’t buy any seafood that isn’t certified as sustainable. Talk to your local grocer about where their seafood comes from—consumer input of this sort really has an impact.

In general, choose local over distant, and bend over backwards to support local farmers who are doing the right thing. Their food may be more expensive, but when you buy directly from the producer the middle-men are cut out, so the money ends up going straight to where it counts. So join one of your local CSA’s, and shop at your local food co-op or farmer’s market. If you don’t have a CSA or a co-op in your area, get involved and help start one.

Fair trade is almost always a good choice. Fair trade organizations help your food dollars flow directly to some of the poorest people in the world, which rewards them for their hard work, and protects them from rapacious multi-national corporations.

Fair Trade- Always a good choice.

Grow some of your own organic food. Plant a garden, grow some fruit and nut trees, and make it an activity your family participates in together. It’s good exercise, it’s relaxing, and the only thing with a lower carbon footprint than food you grow yourself is perhaps food you gather sustainable from the wilds near your house, and not everyone is in a position to do that. Food you grow yourself is nearly completely “decoupled” (see post: “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“), and, in the case of perennial systems, can even be restorative.

In the end, there will always be food choices that are difficult to make. But do the best you can, because it’s really, really important. Eventually, like everything else, the good choices will be the default choices. It might cost a bit more, but it’s money well-spent. For myself, I think I’m going to try to resume the all-natural route again after the first of the month, and give it another go. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Image credits: Feedlot–Jeff Vanuga, USDA.  

Combine- Charles Knowles,, Flickr Creative Commons.

 Berries- Mike McCune,, Flickr Creative Commons.