There is an all-out battle going on between supporters of the way we currently produce, process, distribute and sell food in the US and many places around the world and the new food movement who claims that the current food system is corrupt and needs to be destroyed and replaced. Rachel Laudan reframed the debate over the food system by declaring that we have oversimplified the problem. She writes “that there is not ‘a’ food system but multiple cris-crossing supply chains, some connected, some not.” She also traced the origins of the term food system. I support goals of the new food movement in some areas such as to improve access to fresh produce in food deserts and to decrease food waste. I question the ideas that we all need to cook every meal at home, healthiness equals thinness, and we need to avoid processed food.
The attack of the coronavirus has uncovered weaknesses in ways we move food from farms to the dinner table. In its aftermath, will we overcome the weaknesses that have been revealed or will we resume our same old ways? Challenges facing the food system as constructed before CoVID-19 are explored thoroughly in a book called Food Fights, which I reviewed on this site last week. I am particularly intrigued by the chapter in that book by Peter Coclanis and by the writings of Robert Paarleberg, specifically in The United States of Excess. As in most posts I focus on United States, because I understand its challenges better than those of other countries around the world. Some of these questions also apply to the situation in other nations while some questions will not.
As we shift current dependence on processed foods to whole foods will that help or hurt sustainability of food production and distribution? Food waste threatens sustainability of our food supply. Food waste occurs largely in two ways—loss of quantity or quality from farm to market due to insects or rotting or discarding edible food after it has been purchased but not consumed. Waste is more likely to occur in whole foods which deteriorate rapidly after leaving the farm than processed foods for which the shelf life is generally extended. As Anna Zeide points out, all resource inputs are lost when a raw or processed food is wasted (1). Food miles is an interesting concept, but it doesn’t really account for the energy inputs required in transportation. Scale of distribution and efficiency of supply chains are important contributors to improved sustainability. Dried foods like raisins and dates and concentrated juices lower the environmental costs of transporting water across countries or continents.
When we eliminate the corporate farms, who is going to grow the fruits and vegetables America needs? Coclanis shows that farm labor as a share of the total American workforce shrank from 40% in 1900 to 12% in 1950 to 1.4% in 2016. Paarlberg says that hobby farms that produce slow-organic-local foods won’t feed the nation much less the fresh fruits and vegetables that we demand.
The American workforce employed in March, 2020 was 156 million. With advanced technology we might be able to increase farm labor from 1.4% to 5% of the population. Such a move would displace Americans transferring from current jobs or unemployment lines to the land. Although Mayor Bloomberg said that he could teach anyone to be a farmer, it really is not that easy to operate a farm these days. Where are those 7.8 million people going to get the knowledge to farm productively? Where are these new local farmers going to find the capital for their initial investments? Will large numbers of office workers in lucrative jobs relocate from coastal metropolises to farming communities in the Midwest? Urban gardens on vacant lots in inner cities will not be sufficient to feed the suburbs. How long will this transition take relative to the pressing need to combat climate change?
Where will the fertilizer come from to produce organic crops as we reduce the numbers of domestic animals for food production? Many of us are embracing a plant-based diet, although that term has two very distinctly different connotations. To grow and thrive all plants need Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium (NPK). So-called conventional crops use synthetic fertilizers while organic crops rely on more natural sources. Even though we hear much about organic produce, less than 10% of fresh fruits and vegetables sold in the United States are organic. Yields for various crops differ between conventional and organic, but organic yields tend to be lower, and much lower for some items. The dirty little secret about organic sources of fertilization is that much of it is dependent on animal waste in terms of manure, blood, and bones. What will replace those sources if we greatly reduce the animal footprint on our farms? Then again, will we even need organic foods if we all become vegan?
How will we meet the nutritional needs of the American population as we transition away from animal-based diets and ultra-processed foods? The general nutritional concern about vegans is that they need more protein, but such concerns may be overblown. Individual sources of plant proteins do not have the full complement of essential amino acids normally found in animal proteins. Such problems can be overcome by balancing foods such as grains like corn and wheat with pulses like beans and lentils. When a small number of food consumers is vegan, it becomes relatively easy for the market to meet the needs of that population. When demand for a specific grain, such as quinoa, exceeds the capacity to meet it, shortages can occur and the market becomes distorted.
Clean or cultured meats provide high quality animal-based protein without much of the environmental baggage. Plant-based milks and meats supply alternative sources of plant proteins. Unfortunately, such protein sources are coming under scrutiny because they are also considered to be ultra-processed foods. Maybe, as they become more widespread, such alternative meat sources will become less controversial and more acceptable. Plant-based diets may result in deficiencies in other nutrients that are plentiful in animal-based products. Such concerns are particularly relevant when a vegan diet is combined with another diet that is highly restrictive of specific plant-based ingredients.
What is the best way to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables to inner city neighborhoods and rural areas? Many researchers who study ways to improve access to fruits and vegetables in low-income locations point to the need for more supermarkets. But, as Ashanté Reese describes in Black Food Geographies, the unSafeway was not serving the needs of its urban community. Dollar Stores have been offered as alternative markets to provide access, but small stores that offer food on the side face particular challenges in stocking perishable items. Other alternatives include farmers markets and food pantries, each with its benefits and limitations. The current “food system” revolves around supply chains. It seems to me that the best solution would be to develop ways that current supply chains could be modified to meet the needs of inner-city and rural people who need greater access instead of starting over from scratch.
Bottom line is that our current ways of tracing food from seed to the kitchen table are probably not as good as those of us natural scientists (a term used to classify those of us working in the physical or biological sciences as opposed to social scientists) proclaim it is or as bad as the social scientists warn us about it. The concept to embrace the diversity of our food system while seeking ways to improve it as described by Rachel Laudan is a good one that proponents of either side should welcome. The challenges put on that system by the current CoVID-19 crisis highlights the system’s strengths like feeding so many people at home and also exposes its weaknesses like the rapid spread of the disease in a food processing plant. The way forward would be best served by identifying specific problems and working together to fix them.
Natural scientists and Big Food are good at finding efficient solutions and keeping costs (and presumably prices) low. They are not so good at identifying or caring about unintended consequences to workers and consumers when they are adversely affected. Without cash flowing through the company a fork-lift driver at a lower rung on the wage ladder could be laid off, but companies with big profits could be distributing more of their returns to their dedicated workforce. Social scientists and unions are good at identifying unintended consequences of profit-driven excesses. They may not be as good at developing processes that get product out the door and distributed to the end user, particularly when it comes to scaling up to feed a city, state or country. Low-income consumers deserve access to a wide range of foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, but there must be a ready, predictable demand for a small store that stocks fresh, whole foods to at least break even on the items so they can meet payroll.
Maybe we don’t need a revolution in the distribution of food. Maybe we should aim for a more equitable system that provides more food to more people at affordable prices. Maybe we all need to respect each other’s cultural heritage and the foods that are inherent in their cultures. I am definitely not a fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but maybe AOC had a point when she associated growing cauliflower with a “colonial approach to environmentalism.” In the interest of transparency, cauliflower is one of my favorite veggies, but I try not to impose that preference on others. We have seen dissent with respect to CoVID-19, but we have also seen coming together to meet our challenges.
Fighting over food to help clarify differences and provide new insight can be productive, but only if it brings us together to tackle the problems we face in the country. If we can’t get government, science, industry and social activism together with respect to fixing proper distribution of our food supply, how are we going to come together to fight global climate change? Anyone interested in how food is distributed in America, regardless of their current confirmation bias, should purchase and read Food Fights.
ICYMI, I responded to a comment made last week that encapsulates what I am trying to achieve what I am doing on this blog. The reader commented “So many experts – can any of these self proclaimed wizards define the word protein? What is a calorie?”
I responded “Points taken, but the national conversation on food policy is about so much more than science, just as the COVID-19 policy is about so much more than science. The purpose of this blogsite is to speak up for food science to occupy a place at the table in that conversation. What disturbs me more than what historians or the new food movement says is what the scientists that do know what a protein and a calorie are, the nutritionists and the dietitians, when they are more likely to recommend avoiding ultra-processed and even processed foods while ignoring basic principles of food science. One of our problems is that we are inextricably linked to Big Food, particularly when it favors economics over safety and health.
“When the current crisis is over, there will be major changes in the way food is produced, handled, processed, and distributed. That is why Rachel Laudan’s input on the food system is so important. Are we going to see a dismantling of the so-called food system or are we going to develop supply chains that are more resilient in times of crisis, more accessible to the poor and disadvantaged, more concerned about the health of employees, more attentive to reducing food and packaging waste with more emphasis on sustainability and health consciousness? These goals are part of the recommendations called for in Best Before; Future Food; and Molecules, Microbes and Meals. My goal is to get interested people from various points of view to start talking to rather than past each other about food policy.”
I hope that this post has stimulated some comments–positive or negative.
(1) Grocery garbage: food waste and the rise of supermarkets in the mid-twentieth century United States. Anna Zeide,2019, History of Retailing and Consumption, 5(1): 71-86 DOI: 1080/ .2019.1589860
Next week: Trans fatty acids: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Sean O’Keefe