business news in context, analysis with attitude

Interesting piece in that highlights a growing debate suggesting that the growth of small and organic farms simply may not be sustainable in environmental terms.

The report on which the story is based is by the Manchester School of Business for the United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, and is entitled, "Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption."

Salon writes:

“The report is a collection of life-cycle assessment studies that attempt to understand the environmental impacts of the production, transport and packaging of 150 different popular grocery items. What do we know about their contributions to global warming, their energy and water consumption, their effects on local ecosystems? The report's authors go to great pains to stress what they don't know: ‘The data on environmental impacts of the supply and consumption of the range of common foods consumed in the U.K.... and from which we could draw policy-relevant evidence are patchy, to say the least.’ But they still provide quite a bit to chew on.

“Some conclusions seem obvious, upon reflection. Locally grown isn't always the best answer. Tomatoes grown organically in a greenhouse next door to you may consume more fossil fuel energy than tomatoes shipped from hundreds of miles of away, if you take into account the energy used to produce the aluminum and glass that the greenhouse is built from. Organically grown tomatoes cut down on pesticide use, but may also require more land and water than ‘conventional’ tomatoes, depending on where they are grown.

“Some observations are somewhat more subtle. Worried about the global warming impact of the fossil fuel consumed by the trucks that bring your tomatoes from hundreds of miles away to your local supermarket? In a life-cycle analysis, the couple of miles that you drive in your car to get to the supermarket and back does proportionally significantly greater damage. This raises the possibility that it might be better for the world if you biked to the supermarket to pick up tomatoes grown far away, than drive to the nearest farmer's market to get tomatoes grown on the other side of the hill.”

And, Salon continues:

“It's easy to believe in unilateral, all-encompassing world views. Organic is the One True Way. Or, the price mechanism of the free market will solve all our problems without government intervention. It's much harder to try and figure out which tomato of the nine differently sourced varieties available at my local grocery store is most pleasing to my palate and least damaging to the global ecosystem.”
KC's View:
Maybe it is age, but we stopped believing in the “one, true way” - any “one true way” – a long time ago.

Which is sort of the argument that we’ve been making about organic standards – that we care less about who grows them, big farms or small, than we do about universal adherence to basic and reasonable standards.

The older we get, the more sure we become that the way things are is rely the way things are. Which is the point of the UK study.

Salon points out – correctly – that we cannot know at this point if small and organic farms are truly sustainable – but that we do know that more research is required if we are to be up to the challenge of taking care of the planet.