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Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008

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Filed: Country: Philippines
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Our industrial food system is rotten to the core. Heirloom arugula won't save us. Here's what will.

—By Paul Roberts

A couple years back, in a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it's gotten to save the world. After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till. While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.

The results aren't pretty: In winter, when his neighbors' fields are neat brown squares, Fleming's looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields. He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.

But there's a catch. Because Fleming doesn't till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with "judicious" amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness. Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of "farm chemistry," as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation. None­theless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can't charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were "polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder."

That a recovering industrial farmer can't get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming's experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system. Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer "externals," such as pollution or unfair labor practices. Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It's not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale. The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you're done.

But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Such problems aren't exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable. And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming's, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.

And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we're going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.

food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities. But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.

Consider our love affair with food miles. In theory, locally grown foods have traveled shorter distances and thus represent less fuel use and lower carbon emissions—their resource footprint is smaller. And yet, for all the benefits of a local diet, eating locally doesn't always translate into more sustainability. Because the typical farmers market is supplied by dozens of different farms, each transporting its crops in a separate van or truck, a 20-pound shopping basket of locally grown produce might actually represent a larger carbon footprint than the same volume of produce purchased at a chain retailer, which gets its produce en masse, via large trucks.

And for all our focus on the cost of moving food, transportation accounts for barely one-tenth of a food product's greenhouse gas emissions. Far more significant is how the food was produced—its so-called resource intensity. Certain foods, like meat and cheese, suck up so many resources regardless of where they're produced (a pound of conventional grain-fed beef requires nearly a gallon of fuel and 5,169 gallons of water) that you can shrink your footprint far more by changing what you eat, rather than where the food came from. According to a 2008 report from Carnegie Mellon University, going meat- and dairyless one day a week is more environmentally beneficial than eating locally every single day.

Certainly, we can broaden concepts like food miles into more practical, ecologically honest terms. To that end, the British retail chain Tesco is testing a new labeling system that discloses a product's life-cycle carbon emissions in a per-serving figure. But even that focuses too much on a specific outcome, says Fred Kirschenmann, former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Real sustainability, he argues, is defined not by a food system's capacity to ensure happy workers or organic lima beans, but by whether the food system can sustain itself—that is, keep going, indefinitely, in a world of finite resources. A truly sustainable food system is inherently resilient—more capable of self-correction and self-revitalization than its industrial rival. Unfortunately, in the real world of farming, ideas like "resilience" must compete with realities like "costs" and "profits," and producers and consumers alike gravitate toward simpler standards—even if those standards don't represent truly sustainable practices. Worries Kirschenmann, "We've come to see sustainability as some kind of fixed prescription—if you just do these 10 things, you will be sustainable, and you won't need to worry about it anymore."

This tendency to replace complexity with checklists is the hallmark of the alternative food sector. Today's federal requirements for organic food, for example, only hint at the richness of the original concept, which encouraged farmers to not only forgo chemical fertilizers but also replenish soils on-site, using livestock manure or crop rotations. The problem is that replenishing on-site is costly and time consuming. As demand for organic has grown and farmers have been pushed to gain the same überefficiencies as their industrial rivals, more of them (particularly those selling to chain groceries) simply import manure from feedlots, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Technically, these farms are still organic—they don't use chemical fertilizers. But is something really sustainable if the natural fertilizer must travel such distances or come from feedlots, the apotheosis of unsafe, unsustainable production? Forget about food miles. What about poop miles?

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/200...d-local-so-2008

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I realized how much of a joke it is when 80% of our produce is transported from CA. The American consumer is to blame for a lot of the problem. Particularly for not demanding more of the retailers.

Can someone tell me how milk and eggs are cheaper in the States than in Australia? a country of 21 million renowned for farming. Obviously someone is cutting corners; an issue time magazine just had an article on. Personally, I can taste the difference in quality of food here. It is also the first difference someone notices when they travel to AUS. That is, the higher quality of produce there. Most of your produce there is grown locally, as in, around the city you live in. The food I buy here from Whole Foods is basically on par with what is sold in regular supermarkets over there. They also have butchers, fruit shops, delis, fish shops, huge food markets etc over there, so you get a good mix of fresh and high quality food. Something I truly miss. It's one of those thing were if you have not lived it, you assume haza must be talking out of this ####.

God only knows what industrial ####### is in the water supply here.

Edited by haza

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the 400 richest American households earned a total of $US138 billion, up from $US105 billion a year earlier. That's an average of $US345 million each, on which they paid a tax rate of just 16.6 per cent.

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Filed: IR-1/CR-1 Visa Country: Canada
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I will definitely agree with you, Haza. I know when we get meat from Aussie/New Zealand, you can taste the 'game' of it.

I know that when we get settled, we will have our own fruit and veggie garden. Will plant what is in season, etc. I know with our buying habits, we're trying to buy local produce that is in season. I hate buying fruit in the early part of the year that has been flown from Chili - that just seems wrong to me.

Montreal: BEAT!!! Approved!!!!!

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Filed: Country: Canada
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I try to buy local fruit and veggies to supplement what we don't (or aren't able) to grow. There are a few dairy and meat farms around that tout free range meats and dairy products. We buy this when we can. I mean, gawd...have y'all seen the size of a chicken leg lately????? :blink:

Teaching is the essential profession...the one that makes ALL other professions possible - David Haselkorn

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Filed: IR-1/CR-1 Visa Country: Canada
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I try to buy local fruit and veggies to supplement what we don't (or aren't able) to grow. There are a few dairy and meat farms around that tout free range meats and dairy products. We buy this when we can. I mean, gawd...have y'all seen the size of a chicken leg lately????? :blink:

:rofl: We just bought a flat of chicken legs today from Costco - the Lilydale brand. They're huge!!

Montreal: BEAT!!! Approved!!!!!

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Trees grown in arsenic and lead laiden soil is okay as long as whats above ground doesnt get sprayed with chemicals. YAY go ORGANIC!

"I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."- Ayn Rand

“Your freedom to be you includes my freedom to be free from you.”

― Andrew Wilkow

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Trees grown in arsenic and lead laiden soil is okay as long as whats above ground doesnt get sprayed with chemicals. YAY go ORGANIC!

The message here: in the absence of perfect information, it's better to do nothing to promote sustainability.

Enjoy your chemical cocktail.

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I thought it was interesting and a more holistic approach to sustainability is obviously required coupled with promotion of the idea that ever exponentially increasing populations are not sustainable and economic theories that are driven by the idea that they ought to be should be examined rigorously ;)

Refusing to use the spellchick!

I have put you on ignore. No really, I have, but you are still ruining my enjoyment of this site. .

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Filed: Country: Philippines
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I thought it was interesting and a more holistic approach to sustainability is obviously required coupled with promotion of the idea that ever exponentially increasing populations are not sustainable and economic theories that are driven by the idea that they ought to be should be examined rigorously ;)

Should the U.S. put a cap on how many children are born? Would you be in favor of a cap on immigration?

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i am for the market place..like krogers...etc...f##k organic..i did it before it was cool ...

Peace to All creatures great and small............................................

But when we turn to the Hebrew literature, we do not find such jokes about the donkey. Rather the animal is known for its strength and its loyalty to its master (Genesis 49:14; Numbers 22:30).

Peppi_drinking_beer.jpg

my burro, bosco ..enjoying a beer in almaty

http://www.visajourney.com/forums/index.ph...st&id=10835

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