Tag Archives: industrial food

Putting it all together: local food, agricultural policies, and the environment

There’s all sorts of reasons to eat and enjoy local foods:  taste, the satisfaction of contributing to your local food economy, health, opting out of agribusiness.  In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemna guy) knocks it out of the park with a detailed and lenthy essay about why our agribusiness food system is bad for us and bad for the planet, and what we need to do to change it.
Titled Farmer in Chief, the essay acts as an open letter to the presidential candidate elected on November 4th.  The style is a little affected, with lots of second-person and references to ‘sun-food’, but the content is right on.  The basic premise:  “We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

On the environment:

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.

The 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.

On health care:

Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health.

On foreign policy:

In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food.  They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers.

He also provides a good brief history of the industrialization of the U.S. food system. It’s good reading, but repetitive if you’ve read the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Most usefully, Pollan provides a fairly concrete list of things that can be done to improve our current food system, if not transform it.  FUndamentally, he argues that we need to:

1. encourage polyculture farms with a variety of crops and animals on the farm, farmed with far fewer chemical and petroleum-based imputs, with less soil depletion.

2. re-regionalize the food system by doing things like establishing more year-round farmers’ markets, encouraging instutional food buyers to buy locally, and rationalizing the FDA rules regarding small producers and small farms to that they make sense, rather than the one-size-fits-all rules oriented towards industrial agriculture we have today.

3. change the American culture of food.  This is vaguest part of Pollan’s essay, but he argues for a revived victory garden movement, educating kids about healthy eating, and public health campaigns about diabetes and obesity.

Many these ideas are excellent, and would go a long way to encouraging a more sustainable, healthful, regionalized economy of food.  The big obstacle?  The money and power of the agrobusiness lobby.  Monsanto, ADM, the Cattleman’s Association, the grain lobbyists, the hog lobbyists; they are going to work as hard as they can to shut down any kind of reform like this before it becomes a serious threat to their profits.  Reform of the federal farm subsidies and CAFOs, in particular, are going to be a very uncomfortable, protracted battle, if it happens at all.

Many, many senators and representatives have been treated very well by the agriculture lobby, and have received a lot of money and favors.  Reforming the food system in such broad strokes would go a long way to reducing our greenhouse gas emissisons, reducing pollution that makes living near a hog farm unbearable and causes the huge and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, getting Americans to eat more healthily, support small farmers and local economies and communities, and improve our national security.  But achieving it will require the same kind of battle against the lobbyists and vested interests that transforming our healthcare system into a single-payer federal system would.

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for a federal reform to start changing the food system.  Stop buying CAFO meat.  Get your fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets, as much as you can.  There’s more of them then ever before, and they’re growing.  Many of them have meat, dairy and eggs, too.  If you can’t afford to get the majority of your food from the farmers’ market, still go pick up a couple things, whatever you can afford.  Even if its only $2 of apples, thats still $2 that’s going to a nearby farmer, rather than a big company.  Maybe there’s a CSA near you.  Many CSA’s offer subsidized low-cost shares to those who can’t afford a full-price share.

See if your grocery store carries anything made or grown nearby.  Ask the produce manager where the apples or cucumbers come from, and ask them to carry vegetables grown closer than Chile.  Sure, you probably won’t see a display of local apples next week in place of the ones from New Zealand, but it’s another reminder to the big corporations that people care where their food comes from.  Start a garden, and give your extra zucchini and tomatoes to a neighbor who will put them up, or do it youself.    Even if it only happens an inch at a time, each of these things helps to build a local food economy rather than one build around chicken factories in Maryland and  Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans of Monsanto.


Free Markets and Food Markets: The Bad

Unsurprisingly, free marketeers and locavores will not agree on the answers to any of the thorny issues surrounding the trade in foodstuffs.

One article in Saturday’s New York Times, Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World, examines another aspect of the above: the carbon dioxide that shipping and flying food all over the world causes.

Increasingly efficient global transport networks make it practical to bring food before it spoils from distant places where labor costs are lower. And the penetration of mega-markets in nations from China to Mexico with supply and distribution chains that gird the globe — like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco — has accelerated the trend.

But the movable feast comes at a cost: pollution — especially carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas — from transporting the food. Under longstanding trade agreements, fuel for international freight carried by sea and air is not taxed. Now, many economists, environmental advocates and politicians say it is time to make shippers and shoppers pay for the pollution, through taxes or other measures. [emphasis added]

I find it rather startling not only that fuel for air and sea freight isn’t shipped, while rail and truck freight is, but that air and sea freight are lumped together like that. Sea freight is actually very efficient, because so many shipping containers can be loaded onto a single ship, so each container requires relatively little fuel to move it. In contrast, airplanes burn a lot of fuel and carry much smaller loads, so the fuel per unit cost is much higher.

Europe is poised to change that. This year the European Commission in Brussels announced that all freight-carrying flights into and out of the European Union would be included in the trading bloc’s emissions-trading program by 2012, meaning permits will have to be purchased for the pollution they generate. Proponents say ending these breaks could help ensure that producers and consumers pay the environmental cost of increasingly well-traveled food.

This is a pretty good example of an attempt to quantify an externality than had previously gone unaccounted-for, and build its cost into the price of doing business. But why is so much of Europe’s produce imported by air, anyway?

Reason one: Efficiencies of cost

“If there’s an opportunity for cheaper production in terms of logistics or supply it will be taken,” said Ed Moorehouse, a consultant to the food industry in London, adding that some of these shifts also create valuable jobs in the developing world. The economics are compelling. For example, Norwegian cod costs a manufacturer $1.36 a pound to process in Europe, but only 23 cents a pound in Asia.

Reason two: Climate restrictions

Britain, with its short growing season and powerful supermarket chains, imports 95 percent of its fruit and more than half of its vegetables. Food accounts for 25 percent of truck shipments in Britain, according to the British environmental agency, DEFRA.

Reason three: Customer preference

Mr. Datson of Tesco acknowledged that there were environmental consequences to the increased distances food travels, but he said his company was merely responding to consumer appetites. “The offer and range has been growing because our customers want things like snap peas year round,” Mr. Datson said. “We don’t see our job as consumer choice editing.

Some of these reasons for shipping lots of food all around the world are malleable, and some aren’t. People can stop expecting to be able to buy fresh strawberries in January. You could have domestic fish-processing plants, provided you were willing to raise prices and could find local workers. You can’t make bananas grow in England.

Right now, people are only beginning to think about all of the hidden externalities of wanting fresh strawberries in January or the cheapest cod. If the carbon used by transporting food thousands of miles shows up in its price, at least customers will have a more accurate barometer of what foods really cost.

For further reading, Dartmouth professor Susanne Friedberg’s book French Beans and Food Scares is an interesting case study of the dynamics of the vegetable trade between Europe and Africa. In particular, she provides a detailed and fascinating analysis of the trade in green beans between Burkina Faso and France.

When Local Doesn’t Work: Orange Juice

Here in New York, local orange juice isn’t possible. Local grape and apple juice, or raspberry, apple, or pear cider you can find at the farmers’ market. But oranges and other citrus fruits simply won’t survive this far north.
So what do you do when you want orange juice? There’s 5 choices, and a recent-ish article in Slate debated the environmental merits and demerits of several.

a. do without

I don’t drink a lot of orange juice, but I do love it. I enjoy eating locally and I eat a lot of my diet locally, but I’m not going to give up EVERYTHING that isn’t locally grown. Winter strawberries from Chile, yes; but not orange juice. So this option is out.

b. squeeze your own

That would probably be pretty easy with one of these neat automatic juicing machines, common in Spanish cafes. But unless you’re making a LOT of orange juice, it’s not practical. And very expensive!

A smaller mechanical juicer seems destined to be used infrequently, and take up valuable counter space in the meantime. A hand juicer takes a lot of time and you end up with a lot of leftover pith and peel. Moreover, I can’t regularly find juicing oranges (different from regular navel oranges!) in my supermarket, and when I can they tend to be quite expensive. And were the oranges flow in from Spain? Did they use a lot of pesticides? It takes a lot of oranges to make a decent amount of juice.

c. buy it fresh

This is what I do. I buy the Florida’s Natural in particular because the over 1,000 farmers behind the brand are actually part of an enormous co-operative business association. According to their website, this co-op started in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression, and has been thriving ever since. On that basis alone I’ll choose it over Tropicana every day. It’s made from 100% Florida oranges, and is also sold as Growers Pride, Bluebird, Texsun, Adams, Vintage, and Donald Duck (with Disney).

The U.S. is actually a net orange juice exporter, and most of that juice comes from Florida. I don’t have the hard figures for how much U.S. juice is from Florida, but Florida grows 70% of American citrus, so I’m assuming the majority of OJ is also Floridian. Here are some nifty charts about U.S. citrus production in 2007 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since my juice comes from Florida, I don’t feel too badly drinking it in New York. Sure, it’s not local, but it often gets shipped via rail, in these massive liquids rail containers, so at least the transportation costs aren’t as high as they could be. And I have no interest in being a local foods purist or vigilante, but it’s nice to know that all of my orange juice is from Florida.

However, according to the Slate article, my assumptions about the provenance of OJ in general may be inaccurate; some of it could be from Brazil!

Virtually all of the OJ consumed in the United States contains oranges produced in Florida and Brazil; these two industry players produce half of the world’s oranges, and 95 percent of that fruit ends up as juice. Environmentalists have long decried the recent proliferation of orange groves in Brazil, citing the crop’s insatiable thirst (up to 129,000 cubic feet of water per acre annually) and the heavy use of pesticides (though juice oranges require less spraying than those intended for direct consumption)

d. buy it frozen in concentrate

You can also buy one of those frozen tubes of orange juice and mix it with water at home to reconstitute it. At first glance, this seems great. You use water at home, so you’re not shipping heavy liquids all around. The frozen tube of OJ concentrate takes up little space, so it’s more efficient to ship. Aside from the taste issue, it looks like a winner.

But things aren’t quite that easy. You have all of the same issues of regular orange juice: distance, pesticides, water usage, and energy use in processing. Plus, as I learned from the Slate article, frozen orange juice is evaporated using heat until it is concentrated, which uses an immense amount of energy:

Concentrate can be stored in industrial freezers for several years. Running those freezers takes a lot of energy, but not nearly as much as operating the evaporators; approximately 90 percent of an orange juice plant’s energy goes toward thermal processing. So, there’s little question that creating FCOJ [frozen concentrated orange juice] requires a lot more fuel, usually in the form of natural gas, than producing NFC [not-from-concentrate orange juice].

This diagram of how frozen concentrated orange juice is made demonstrates what an industrial, energy-intensive process it is:

My assumptions about transportation also look a little optimistic. As the article continues:

According to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, making juice uses more energy than getting it into stores. In 2001, for example, it cost a Florida manufacturer roughly 20 cents to process a pound of frozen OJ, but just 7 cents per pound to truck it to the northeastern United States. And when Florida’s Natural Growers closed its Bartow, Fla., manufacturing facility in 2005, it cited the soaring cost of natural gas as the reason. (Based on its 7.5-million-gallon capacity and its projected 2006 natural-gas tab of $2.1 million, the Bartow plant would have been responsible for approximately 9,129 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—about the same as 1,700 cars.)

The author does make the mistake here of conflating the amount of energy used and the price of that energy, but it is startling how much CO2 orange juice processing emits, even for not-from-concentrate juice that doesn’t have to be evaporated or stored in freezers.

d. buy it reconstituted

This is definitely the worst option, taste-wise. It doesn’t have the same pulpy, rich taste that fresh orange juice has, and the taste is thin, watery and kind of artificial.

It turns out that it’s also the worst choice for the environment: orange juice from concentrate is just orange juice that has been evaporated (using a huge amount of energy), shipped or flown to a processing center, where a bunch of water is added to it. Then, the reconstituted orange juice, just as bulky and heavy as fresh orange juice, is shipped to its final destination. Port Newark, actually has two “orange juice concentrate storage and blending facilities.” Port Newark, combined with the adjacent Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal, is about the 15th busiest port in the world. Can you imagine how much orange juice they must reconstitute to have TWO buildings dedicated solely to reconstituting orange juice? The scale, and the amount of energy used in the processing, transportation, and reconstitution, blows me away.

Essentially, you get the same loss of taste as in the frozen concentrate, but with a much heavier environmental burden. No thanks!

So, the take-away? I happen to like orange juice, and I will still drink it, though probably less often than I did before I found out how energy-intensive the processing is. When I do, I’ll stick to Florida’s Natural, so I can be sure the oranges are at least from this country, and I’ll be staying far, far away from reconstituted “juice”!

The Leviathan of Scale, or, Can McDonald’s and Wal-Mart Help Save the World?


America, as a nation, adores fast food. The story of McDonald’s, brainchild of the McDonald brothers in California in the late 1940’s, then bought, franchised and expanded by Ray Kroc

in the 1950’s, can be read as a typically American story of starting from nothing and triumphing over the odds to achieve great success. The iconic styling of the restaurants, as well as McDonald’s symbiosis with the automobile, capture a particular moment in the American psyche, when all things were possible and bigger was better, in both tail fins and franchises.


Today, there are over 13,000 McDonald’s franchises, far outnumbering Burger King (7,000+) and Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s (about 6,000 each). This lovely map by Ian Spiro at fastfoodmaps.com maps fast food outlets in the U.S., and the numbers are truly staggering.

Here’s a map of just the McDonald’s:


And another map of McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, KFC, Jack in the Box, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr, and In-N-Out:


The map doesn’t even include the smaller chains like Roy Rogers, White Castle, Subway, Blimpie, Quiznos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Whataburger, or Chick-fil-A, or the slightly more upscale ‘fast casual’ of chains like Panera Bread or Chipotle. McDonald’s also has about 1,000 Canadian franchises, 10,500+ international franchises, and about 8,000 company-owned international locations worldwide.

With numbers like that, it’s not surprising that McDonald’s is the largest American purchaser of beef, potatoes, and pork, and the second largest of chicken, according to Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book, Fast Food Nation.

At this scale, McDonald’s purchasing guidelines have an enormous impact on their suppliers and the farmers who supply the food. The 2005 introduction of the fruit & walnut salad, part of an effort to provide more ‘healthy’ food choices, really shows the gargantuan effect McDonald’s has. Essentially overnight, since the introduction of the salad in 2005, McDonald’s has become the largest purchaser of apples in the U.S., over 54 million pounds a year.

As an article in the Guardian explains,

McDonald’s … now buys more apples than any other restaurant chain in the United States. And if the product … takes off, it has the potential to transform an entire agricultural industry. The chain’s influence could alter for ever the method and scale of production, the varieties of apple produced, and the rights of the thousands of workers who pick them, and not necessarily for the better.

Big retail buyers such as Wal-Mart and Safeway have already started this process. Experience in other sectors suggests that, at some stage, the balance of power shifts, and the buyer dictates the terms. Already, retailers demand an apple that is 3ins in diameter – the optimum size to maximise the number that can be displayed within a square foot, while remain appealing to the consumer.

The entry into the market of McDonald’s, which prides itself on the fact that its meals taste the same wherever you are in the world, will only accelerate this trend towards uniform mass consumption. The bigger a producer, the greater the likelihood that McDonald’s will want to do business with it because it will be able to provide everything the chain needs. “It will want large volumes of uniform apples that have to be the same variety and the same size,” says Desmond O’Rourke, economist and publisher of World Apple Report. ” And it wants to deal with large shippers who can produce those numbers.

Another article in the New York Times touches on the same problem: the increased vertical integration of the suppliers, and the increased scale and standardization necessary, are squeezing out the smaller growers. The article continues,

Other advocacy groups said that they were hopeful that McDonald’s would one day use its power not only to get better prices and greater supply, but also to change the way the produce industry operates – for the better. Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group based in Little Marais, Minn., said he would like to see McDonald’s buy some organic products, which he believes are more healthful for consumers.

In a 2003 report on pesticides in produce, the Environmental Working Group, a public-policy outfit based in Washington, ranked apples as the third-most-contaminated produce group, after peaches and strawberries, in terms of pesticide residue. The findings were based on tests done by the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration from 1992 to 2001.

“McDonald’s could have a huge impact,” Mr. Cummins said. “They could be the company that changes agriculture toward a more organic and sustainable model.” It may sound far-fetched, but from a company that’s come a long way from the days of selling mainly hamburgers and fries, anything is possible.

What would a shift by McDonald’s towards organic apples, or organic potatoes and hamburger look like? The recent push by Wal-Mart towards stocking greater amounts of organic produce suggests that it wouldn’t really be all that different from the standard model, just with a bit fewer pesticides and drugs. Given the purchasers’ requirements of uniformity and scale, organic products destined for McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are still overwhemingly going to be produced by large growers and conglomorates via large-scale monocrop methods. Furthermore, an article from BusinessWeek in 2007 examines the ‘organic-ness’ of Wal-Mart and finds it lacking:

Now there are questions about whether “the Wal-Mart price” might come at a cost to organic foods. State officials in Wisconsin have launched an investigation into the retailer’s practices after complaints that Wal-Mart may be misleading consumers. A central question is whether signs on store shelves and banners above the shelves describe foods as “organic,” while the foods nearby do not qualify for the label, under federal guidelines.

Retailers and farmers involved in organic foods worry that giants like Wal-Mart may muddy the waters about what is and is not organic. Some are upset over the allegations and wonder whether other supermarkets will take steps similar to those alleged. “A huge amount of work went into coming up with a standard of quality in the organic industry,” says Randy Lee, CFO at PCC Natural Markets, the largest co-op operating in the U.S., which runs eight stores in the Seattle area. “If these allegations are true, then it very easily erodes those standards and comes with a significant business impact on other retailers that have higher standards.”

The watchdog group that prompted the Wisconsin investigation is called The Cornucopia Institute and has been active in what it calls “family-scale” farming. It has produced photographs of items that are not certified organic or are only partially organic that appear on shelves at Wal-Mart with banners or signs that say “Wal-Mart Organics.” The photos from Cornucopia show items that could be easily mistaken for organic. Many have descriptions such as “all natural” or “natural,” including Stonyfield Farms All Natural Yogurt and Florida Crystals natural sugar.

Still, even though an organic Wal-Mart apple or bag of lettuce mix would be produced in enormous commercial operations, it would still not be as input-intensive as conventional large-scale farming. And given the scale of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, that’s a lot of fertilizer and pesticides not being applied.

Simply put, Wal-Mart’s potential influence is too large to be ignored. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest largest public corporation by revenue, and the largest private employer. In the U.S., Wal-Mart sells 20% of all groceries, 22% of toys, and is the largest private user of electricity. Due to this mind-boggling scale, even small changes by Wal-Mart are magnified to have a big effect.

A 2006 Fortune article describes Wal-Mart’s various efforts to go ‘green.’ These environmental initiatives, launched in 2005, didn’t grow out of a sudden concern for the environment. Rather, the company faced serious business and PR problems, including a class-action suit alleging sex discrimination, a damaging report showing that Wal-Mart paid 30% less to insure its workers, and millions of dollars in fines for violating air and water pollution laws.

A meeting in 2004 between Conservation International, Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott, and Rob Walton led to a simple conclusion:

“Wal-Mart could improve its image, motivate employees, and save money by going green.”

Wal-Mart’s own efforts, from slimming down packaging and reducing gas used in transportation, have a huge effect due to the enormous size of the company.

“Wal-Mart installed machines called sandwich balers in its stores to recycle and sell plastic that it used to throw away. Companywide, the balers have added $28 million to the bottom line.”

However, the most important and interesting of Wal-Mart’s new environmental initiative is it’s role as a major intermediary between manufacturers and consumers. As the Fortune article points out,

If Wal-Mart influenced the behavior of a fraction of its 1.8 million employees or the 176 million customers that shop there every week, the impact would be huge. And because of the extraordinary clout Wal-Mart wields with its 60,000 suppliers, it could make even more of a difference by influencing their practices.

This is why Wal-Mart’s eco-initiative is potentially more world-changing than, say, GE’s. GE sells fuel-efficient aircraft engines and billion-dollar power plants to a few customers. Wal-Mart sells organic cotton, laundry soap, and light bulbs to millions. When shoppers see a display promoting “the bulb that pays for itself, again and again and again,” they’ll be reminded of their own environmental impact.

By buying CF bulbs they’ll also save money on their utility bills, leaving them more money to spend at, you guessed it, Wal-Mart. The bigger idea here is that poor and middle-income Americans are every bit as interested in buying green products as are the well-to-do, so long as they are affordable.

Plenty of places sell fair-trade coffee, for example. Only Wal-Mart sells it for $4.71 a pound. “The potential here is to democratize the whole sustainability idea–not make it something that just the elites on the coasts do but something that small-town and middle America also embrace.”

Maybe this will work, maybe Wal-Mart’s market saturation will enable it to preach the (consumerist) organic gospel to potential new converts. Or maybe Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic battle will result in a further dilution of the USDA organic standards, while continuing the company’s pattern of consolidation and vertically integrated manufacturing, continuing to squeeze out smaller producers and retailers. It’s hard to say, but I’m not willing to bet the sustainable future on Wal-Mart, whose goal, after all, is maintaining its business and stock price.

Local Dairies Products Become Chic in the New York Times


One of the most striking aspects of the shift over the past century to mechanized food production is how the local logistics have shifted.

For example, think of a dairy farm. In the pre-refrigeration past, most of the dairy products, particularly fresh milk and cream, were produced at the farm itself. Butter could be made at the farm, or the cream brought to a nearby butter factory. Cheese could be made at the farm, or by nearby cheesemakers who bought the whole milk at the farm. The dairy industry still works like that in much of the world. When I lived in Switzerland, we had a dairy in our little village, nestled in the base of the hill. Early each morning, you could see the hausfraus walking back up the hill, toting their full milk pails back from the dairy.

Hand Milking

Our current system in the United States bears almost no resemblance to that small-scale, localized dairy of the past. With the advent of refrigeration, mechanical milking, and better transportation, the industry shifted to a centralized, large-scale specialized production system. Using milking machines, modern dairies are ably to milk many more cows than their hand-milked predecessors. More cows meant much more milk. Instead of selling the milk locally, it is refrigerated in large holding tanks, before a milk transport tanker arrived to bring the milk to a factory. At the factory, it’s homogenized, pasteurized, and packaged before being shipped to a central distributor, and from there to various grocery stores.

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