Food Politics

Food! And nary a twinkie to be seen

Food politics is hard. Should you look for organic food? Try to eat things that are local and sustainable? Avoid GMOs? Survive on soylent? Move to Mongolia and become a subsistence herder? The more you look into them, the more these questions turn out to be complicated.

Here is a good piece, by Will Saletan at Slate on the immense global harm done by blanket opposition to genetically modified foods. And here is a piece, by Rachel Laudan in Jacobin, bemoaning food nostalgia. These two pieces, shared by people on facebook, follow a debate I’ve been observing online and in the real world about the locavore movement. Here is an excerpt from anti-local book “The Locavore’s Dilemma” by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, dealing specifically with the environmental case for food miles, here is an appraisal of the book by Vancouver geographer Lenore Newman, here is a response to Newman by Desrochers, and here is more by Newman. What seems to be the case is that “food miles” is not a useful concept, but beyond that whether eating locally is at all good is complicated. If you haven’t had enough of the debate, grist has a whole goddamn symposium.

I will confess I am greatly predisposed to be against local, organic, anti-GMO movements a priori, which colours my judgment. For one, I think these movements are political moralizing by the well-to-do, and I think to make our lives better political moralizing should be curtailed as much as possible. For another, I hate the implied idea that you can consume your way to righteousness. Nevertheless, I am self-aware enough to realize that that’s a distinction between necessary and sufficient: consuming “right” does not make you a good person, but that doesn’t mean that all consumption choices are equally good to make.

But the choices in regard to food are all complicated and defy hard fast rules. As in all things, organic or not, local or not, etc. are best decided on a case by case basis. Local seems to be better for shrimp here in WA/BC (does not destroy mangrove forests), non-local for some but not all fruits and vegetables (takes less input energy to grow in warmer climate). On the other hand, you’re not going to research every piece of (gross) kale or (fantastically delicious) rocket for an hour before buying it. So perhaps, as James McWilliams says at the grist symposium, a truce between the sides in food politics is in order.

And yet, few things rile up our comfortable discussions as much as food politics. Among this blog’s small but excellent readership (“always outnumbered, never outgunned. Except when talking about actual guns, I guess”), there are people on opposite sides of the food politics debate who have described their opponents’ views to me not just as in error, but as “evil”. For an issue where the truth is so un-clear-cut, that seems crazy to me. I don’t want to use the lack of black and white to paint everything a uniform grey, however. Here are three things that, as far as I can tell, are hard fast rules about environmental friendliness and food, and make the largest difference you can make as a consumer:

1. It is good to eat less meat. Nathanael Johnson at grist lays it out for you if you don’t see why.

2. It is good to minimize the amount of driving you do to get food. (The statistics cited in “The Locavore’s Dilemma” about how much of a food’s carbon footprint comes from the consumer going to buy it at the store are telling)

3. Don’t buy food and then throw it out. Food waste is the largest contribution to the carbon footprint of food that we have control over as consumers

But to that I want to add another point:

4. Don’t be so damn moralistic about the food choices of others.

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