Thursday, February 21, 2008

Local food, global miscalculations...

[I know, I know - I said I would get this book review up about twenty times before and it was due a month ago. This whole deal is turning into fourth grade all over again. Just be glad I'm not just paraphrasing the book jacket. Which I didn't do then either.]

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

There is a tide in the food culture and writers like Kingsolver and Michael Pollan surf it better than almost anyone. Whether its the loss of connection predicted by Putnam due to the passing of the WWII generation, or general dissatisfaction with modern lifestyles, many of us with ample disposable incomes have decided the problem is our food.

I mention Pollan, because at time AVM reads like his latest report from the frontlines of getting in touch with our calories - Omnivore's Dilemma. To unfairly summarize, our food supply, in their opinions, has been hijacked by poor nutrition choices and the profit motive.

Given the considerable talents of both, their powers of persuasion are not to be dismissed lightly. And the criticisms of our food system are for the most part on target: we eat too much of the wrong food, we eat too much prepared foods and miss the power of food preparation as a human activity, we have lost any linkages with where food comes from.

Perversely, that last complaint often spouts from self-appointed ag-spokespersons. Only they are referring to veneration of farmers and public dollars for subsidies, whereas modern food writers like Kingsolver are correctly labeling the unfortunate lack of understanding of how much better our eating and living could be if we respected the processes of nature and traditions of cultures in food preparation and enjoyment.

Kingsolver's premise was to eat local for a year, growing and consuming as much as possible from her own garden and neighborhood. Her account is masterfully told, albeit interrupted by poorly informed little sermons from her college daughter. Like Pollan, Kinglsover brings enormous literary talent to bear on her arguments against CAFO's, HFCS, vegetables from California in January, and the now-familiar litany of foodie-complaints.

She also includes some highly dubious or flat out false statistics: "fewer than a third of our farms are run by families"; "An estimated 67 million birds die each year from pesticide exposure on US farms." [Some context - that would work out to about 1/5 bird per acre of cropland. US bird population best guess I could find = 5000 million (5B) birds. If pesticide loss is true, which is very unlikely, it would be a little over 1% loss]"

Any verbiage about GM crops is long since disproven (butterflies and GM pollen) or simply mistaken.

Surprisingly, I agree with many of her points about food itself. Thanks to a master gardener roommate, I have discovered that maybe I do like fresh, in-season vegetables after all. I throw out the tomato-like impostors that add neither taste nor texture to winter salads and wait to eat in season. And I consume far less meat, and prefer poultry dark meat as the only part of modern birds with any hint of flavor or juiciness in them.

All these choices however, are made possible because of my relatively considerable disposable income, ample room for gardens, and (I think I should have mentioned this first) a spouse who loves to cook and garden, and who doesn't have to commute and hold down a job so we can have health insurance. In short, better food choices are easier to make if you're well-to-do.

Kingsolver dances neatly around this unmentionable truth. In fact, she works studiously to avoid offering any advice as to how others who don't have a husband with tenure and time, and an author's schedule could duplicate her year of food improvement.

Since she is living in a small rural community, understanding of farm life flows into her by osmosis and via the agrarian gurus at the Temple (AKA the farmer's market). She is where things grow, ergo she understands growing things. And this is where her masterful prose goes to strange places.

For example, in her long-winded but poetic lamentation for the loss of tiny, picturesque farms she bizarrely rambles toward embracing the virtues of tobacco, since it was that high value crop that made 20 acres enough to support a family.
""Yes, I do know people who've died wishing they'd never seen a cigarette. Yes, it's a plant that causes cancer after a long line of people (postfarmer) have specifically altered and abused it. [Is she saying we should have stuck with peace pipes and all would have been well?] And yes, it takes chemicals to keep blue mold off the crop. But it sends people to college. It makes house payments, buys shoes, and pays doctor bills."
Kingsolver is so intensely focused on personal enjoyment and meaning in food and the well-lived, self-absorbed agrarian life she cannot fathom the consequences of her conclusions on a globe that includes a few more people than her family.

I also came to realize Kingsolver was sadly and embarrassingly innumerate. She cannot handle this simplest math problem and hence wisely and completely ignores the economic implications of her conclusions about what our food should be and how we should grow and consume it. I think it was this sentence that tipped me off:
"In 2005, ten years after the program began, participating family farms collectively sold $236,000 worth of organic vegetables to regional retailers and supermarkets, which those markets, in turn, sold to consumers for nearly $0.3 million."
Umm, would that be the same as "nearly $300,000", I wonder? Or a markup of about 25% from wholesale. But then $0.3 million sounds so much bigger. Say it out loud and see.

Another example is this extraordinarily ill-informed tax commentary concerning shipping food from places like California.
"It's hard to believe, given the amount of truck fuel involved, but transportation is tax-deductible for the corporations, so we taxpayers paid for that shipping."
Let's go through that little gem of illogic slowly. Tax-deductible does not equal government funded. When I can get a tax credit equal to my fuel bill, then taxpayers will be paying for the shipping. And oddly enough, transportation expenses are allowable tax-deductible expenses for individuals, not just corporations. For instance, authors can deduct plane fares to go on a book tours - just to pick an example at random.

Besides, as the Kiwis demonstrated convincingly, the food miles concept is arithmetically suspect because of the staggering efficiencies of bulk shipping and handling.

But the real killer problem for the local food movement is not the concept that it is better food. In many ways they are dead right. It is that local food is not scalable. In other words, when Kingsolver writes that 70% of Americans live within striking distance of a farmer's market, she leaves the impression that the 210 million individuals could a) all go to one easily and b) find something there to buy.

I stand by my previous conclusion after doing the math: "If we all shopped at farmer markets, where would we park?"

Kingsolver, Pollan, et al. think they understand history and find traditional agrarian methodology vastly superior to industrial agriculture. But no actual numbers demonstrate how our modern food system could be much different if we are serious about getting food to 300,000,000 souls every day. The fact that virtuous agrarian agriculture is a small part of the food industry is blamed on base motives, corporate greed, and sadly misled simpleton consumers. I believe it's because agrarian production is a niche activity that can't begin to carry that kind of load.

Take a business course, people! Then come up with a production, distribution, and retail system that does what ours does at the same cost and I'll bet it looks pretty similar.

But I digress. Kingsolver does scrupulously document the time and costs of her year-long experiment and the wonderful benefits it clearly bestowed on her family. She simply cannot make a credible case for how that example could be adapted to families without access to land in a temperate climate, transportation, or comfortable, secure income.

Local food is a wonderful idea to improve your eating and our world. The idea and people like Kingsolver are going to have a significant effect on industrial food production. But, it is also a luxury good.


Anonymous said...

There oughta be a law forcing people to read only locally-written books. Think of the energy savings!

John, good post, as usual, but you were far too kind to one of the true nitwits of the world.

Bill Harshaw said...

Like it. Are you going to read Michael Pollan's new book?

John Phipps said...


I don't agree with the "nitwit" categorization. Industrial ag needs more enemies like it needs a short corn crop this year.

We can dispute the ability of agrarian agriculture to feed billions without ridiculing their sincerity or intelligence.

And we can also applaud their efforts to help people eat better and enjoy contact with the soil and growing things. Those ideas can only help.


I probably will read his new one, but if you beat me to it, send me your review and I'll post it.

Thanks for reading guys.

Anonymous said...

John, it was a thoughtless remark and I regret it.