The Modern Food System

The Modern Food System: Good or Evil?

I was watching a TEDtalk on food that had an all too familiar meme: the modern food system is unsustainable and is a blight on humanity. Here’s the video:
The video is interesting, and it traces the development of the food system with that of cities, arguing the two are intertwined.

She posits there have been 3 major landmarks in the history of our foodsystem:

  1. The development of agriculture and cities simultaneously in mesopotamia
  2. The introduction of industrial agriculture by the Roman Empire
  3. Packaged food began to arrive in 50’s, negating our need to cook our own.

If I’m inferring her tone correctly, these were all turns for the worse, because it tore us further apart from the food we ate, and it creates an unsustainable system that weakens our link with nature and puts stress on the planet.

Her solution, like other pundits who speak on the issue, all seem to converge on the same answer: it’s best to grow your own food.

I agree modern agricultural creates externalities that are harmful. As a personal choice I strongly aim to eat whole, unprocessed foods, and enjoy the bucolic feeling I get when I grow and prepare it myself. However, I’ve always found the local food movement to be naive and simplistic in its aims.

This article by Waldo Jacquith provides a nice example of the drawbacks to this solution:

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summerLettuce is in season in spring and fallLarge mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.

To grow your own food would exclude the vast majority of available nutrients and flavors that are worth trying. Not just processed foods, but all sorts of natural ones as well. Incredible Greens would be impossible if the Locavore movement were taken literally. There are lots of health and lifestyle reasons why you shouldn’t aim to do this.

People who disagree with me would point out the sustainability issue, but the local food movement has grave sustainability issues of its own.

It’s woefully unproductive.

This op-ed by locavore Stephen Budiansky sums up the issue well.

Industrial agriculture accounts for 2% of the energy used in our food system.

Households account for the largest part, at about 25%.

To redirect food resources away from the most efficient part of the food system (by far) doesn’t satisfy most canons of sustainability.

This doesn’t detract from the health problems created by industrialized food, but it throws sand at “local food” as a viable solution.

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