An Agromodernist Reader | Volume Three | A Corrective to [Small. Local. Organic.]

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In our last volume, we looked at attempts to grapple with and improve fast food and convenience foods. Here we stress test the three legs of the locavore stool.

A CORRECTIVE TO [SMALL. LOCAL. ORGANIC.]

JAMES MCWILLIAMS | THE NEW YORK TIMES
Food That Travels Well
They found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.

These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles. New Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.” The British government’s 2006 Food Industry Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks to consider the environmental costs “across the life cycle of the produce,” not just in transportation.

JAMES MCWILLIAMS | SLATE
Organic Crops Alone Can’t Feed the World
Given these figures, a switch to organic agriculture would require a 43 percent increase over current U.S. cropland, according to Savage. As he puts it, “On a land-area basis, this additional area would be 97% the physical size of Spain or 71% the size of Texas.” (Yes, Texas is bigger than Spain.) These are depressing figures, especially in light of the fact that global food demand is entering a 40-year upward trend. It’s no wonder that Steve Savage, who spent part of his career developing organic pest controls, concludes that organic “is too small and unproductive to ever be the ‘solution’ to our need to simultaneously feed the world and protect the environment,” as he told me via e-mail.

So should we dismiss organic agriculture outright? Absolutely not. Organic may not be “the” solution to global food demand, but it can certainly be part of it. As Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, writes, “I think we need a new kind of agriculture—kind of a third agriculture, between the big agribusiness, commercial approach to agriculture, and the lessons from organic and local systems.” With enhanced investment in agricultural research, there’s every reason to hope that organic yields will improve and that the organic model will become more prominent. The fact that we’re not yet there, as Savage’s study verifies, doesn’t mean we should abandon the quest for agricultural systems that are both high yielding and as ecologically responsible as they can be.

NATHANAEL JOHNSON | GRIST
Urban farms won’t feed us, but they just might teach us
If we want to scale up regional food systems and stop giving farmers an incentive to expand into prairies and rainforests, it seems like it would be a great idea to grow a significant amount of our calories right in our cities. It’s a beautiful concept, reuniting humans and nature to solve many of the problems brought about by our urbanization. But talking to urban farmers and reading the recent research turned a cold hose (of reclaimed rooftop drain water) on my enthusiasm.

… There’s plenty of good reasons to grow food in cities. But the hype of urban farms curing all ills and supplying a significant portion of their city’s calories is just that: hype. The arguments for urban farming have been so persuasive that they’ve been irresistible to marketers and faddists who pay lip service to the ideals without reckoning with the realities.

WILL BOISVERT | THE BREAKTHROUGH INSTITUTE
A Locavore’s Dilemma
On the Fantasy of Urban FarminG

I have no idea where my food comes from, but I hope it’s shipped by rail from a California factory farm.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive. But I’m an environmentalist who can do math, and the numbers on locavorism, like much else in green-urbanist food ideology, don’t add up.

That’s why I’m skeptical about the urban farming craze that’s sweeping New York City.

Volume One: Opening Salvos
Volume Two: COMESTIBLES: WE NEED BETTER FAST FOOD, JUNK FOOD, AND CONVENIENCE FOODS
Volume Three: A CORRECTIVE TO [SMALL. LOCAL. ORGANIC.]
Volume Four: ON THE FARM: THE QUEST FOR BETTER
Volume Five: BIOTECH CROPS: A TOOL FOR SUSTAINABILITY

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  1. A Culinary Modernist Reader | Volume One | Opening Salvos | Food and Farm Discussion Lab
  2. The Culinary Modernist | Volume Six | Nathanael Johnson’s Panic Free GMOs | Food and Farm Discussion Lab

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