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You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.
— Dr. Norman Ernest Borlaug

I came across a very fascinating article on my twitter feed tonight about conventional wisdom about conventional farming, and the supposed superiority of organic, locally grown farm food.

I have to admit, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a farmer, I’m not anyone with any authority to talk on the subject about this issue. I’m just a curious, lower-middle class consumer with a bleeding heart who is hoping to find the best way to live her life in a way that’s best for her planet and the inhabitants of it. I’ve been vegan, I’ve been vegetarian, I’ve been locavore, I’ve been an organic junkie. I am absolutely the first type of person this article should target, but I imagine for many in this demographic like me, it will be very hard to swallow.

One of my favourite things about this article is the clever turn-of-phrase, “First-World food fetishes”, because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what they are. I know someone on my facebook who posts each meal he eats from the Farmer’s Market in graphic detail, which always disturbed me for some reason I couldn’t pinpoint- other than my general dislike of the guy- he’s a smarmy pseudo liberal- but this is just it, that general smugness over his allegedly morally superior meal? First World food fetish. Bingo. His smugness pollutes the air more than an entire army of methane-farting farm life. And it’s costing farmers dearly in the developing world, apparently.

I’ve participated in my own fair share of FWFF, I will admit that. I even have examples of it scattered throughout my blog when talking about food. I’m a die-hard foodie, I will admit that, and I delighted in local because, as the article says later, it does tend to taste better (though how much of that is confirmation bias due to the price and fancy label is unclear) But I never took it far enough, I hope, to suggest that it was the only way to eat, or that I was a better person than people who couldn’t afford to eat local or chose not to. Or to devote entire facebook posts to bragging about how my entire meal came from within a 40 mile radius of where I lived. Kindly chastise me the day I do.

The article neatly cites facts to dispute this idea that you can save the planet one trip to Whole Foods at a time, pointing out the hidden environmental costs of greenhouses, fertilizer and feed, and reduced efficiency of organic operations. I was particularly surprised to read about the local food costs, since I already was aware that organic isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and I ask anyone who thinks GM immediately means “frankenfish” if they own a dog, because they should really think twice about having a genetically engineered wolf around in that case.* But this:

What about “local”? Perhaps locally grown produce tastes better to some people. And perhaps it is psychologically better to have close contact with the people who grow your food. But that doesn’t make it good for the environment. For example, it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers. It is four times more energy efficient for them to eat lamb shipped from the other side of the world than it is to eat British lamb. That’s because transporting the final product accounts for only a small part of the energy consumed in the production and delivery of food. It’s far better to eat foods from places where production itself is more efficient. For example, New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed — which itself is often imported.

… got my attention especially. I had not considered that. It’s probably not applicable to everywhere, after all, Island Farms in Victoria is an excellent dairy, and the green, lush grasses of Vancouver Island is a much better place for dairy cattle to graze than say, the plains of Saskatchewan or Manitoba, which would be better suited to bison. But it is telling, considering the burgeoning popularity of “eating local” in places where that is just not really feasible on a large scale, such as in large urban areas or places like the Northern Territories.**

The cost to developing countries is also staggering, which I was previously unaware of/did not consider at all. I was already familiar with one of the scientists quoted in the article Dr. Norman Borlaug, whom I consider to be one of the greatest heroes of humankind, criticizing first world leaders, in their air conditioned offices in Prague, Washington, and Brussels who never want for food, for restricting what third world farmers could plant, putting ideology over the realities the farmers faced. But I did not realize the great scale of this effort to suppress their agricultural output.

The article made a rather grim point about all this hullabaloo:

Because what we definitely know is that, compared with the unsubstantiated health risks of GM or the illusive health benefits of organic crops, there are undoubtedly health risks to not having enough — or enough variety — to eat.

Probably one of the most profoundly heartbreaking and true things I ever read. For all our good intentions with the expensive organic locavore lifestyle that is out of reach for most, we’re basically putting a stranglehold on the efforts of others to attain even a slight improvement to their lives. We’re allowing a lavish diet to permanently condemn them to poverty.

It was all very depressing and eye opening. It wasn’t doom and gloom all the way though. The conclusion was helpful and uplifting:

So how should you eat as a responsible global citizen? Consume less meat and oppose Western farm-subsidy programs — especially if they focus on livestock. Campaign against U.S. biofuel programs, which divert corn into grossly inefficient energy production. Embrace further testing and analysis of GM crops. Encourage public funding of research and intellectual property laws that ensure that poor farmers are not priced out of the potential benefits of GM seeds. Spend only on organic food that is as energy- and land-efficient as conventional production. And be a smart consumer: Local produce grown out of season and meat raised on imported feed isn’t friendly to you, the environment, or the developing world.

That’s a hopeful message I can take home. I am not sure how much I agree with the entire premise, especially in light of my concerns about issues like food being accessible during crisis periods/disasters and monoculture, but these are relevant points worth thinking about: Organic/local/GMO free does not necessarily mean better, healthier, or morally superior, we should not moralize our food choices, plenty and little are often flip sides of the same coin, we must consider the impact that our purchases have upon the world at large, and it’s best if you know as much as you can about where your food comes from and how it gets to your fork, from start to finish. That last one especially is something a devoted environmentalist can fall back on.

At least I have some food for thought before I go to sleep.
*Naturally, I realize that there are a lot of ethical questions surrounding GMOs, in terms of labelling, seed ‘copyrighting’, unethical companies like Monsanto behaving in an abhorrent manner towards farmers who ‘steal’ their ‘intellectual property’, and the long-term effects on human, animal, plant and planetary health, but let’s face it, a good portion of it is scaremongering, and it is not worth letting the food insecure starve, in my opinion.
** Of course, the indigenous peoples of the Northern Territories ate locally, for quite a long time, and contrary to the claims of dieticians who think fat is the devil, their high protein, high fat diet was amongst the healthiest in the world. But the continued assault of global warming upon areas like the north, modernization, and demands for a diet that is more than seal hearts have more or less guaranteed this lifestyle is antique.