Friday, July 26, 2013

The Food Economy of Cities

Is it a waste of resources for urban foodies to garden on their rooftops?

Will Boisvert points out to locavores in “The Breakthrough” that transportation is only 5% of the energy used, on average, to get food on your plate, reducing the locavore dilemma to one of choosing between being a “rather cultic” farm share owner and accepting the efficient solution of factory farmed produce from California. But there’s more value in getting close to your food sources than simply saving fuel, and you don’t have to move to the country to get some of the benefits.

Harvesting your own food, even occasionally, gives you more respect for the land and the people who do farm labor. It’s satisfying on an animal level to see and smell the soil and air, and to taste what they yield. It inspires confidence to serve---and is actually more nourishing to eat---foods that you know well and enjoy. Meeting food where it lives advances that knowledge and pleasure.

Boisvert says he’s an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive, but the ways in which the author of “A Locavore’s Dilemma” ignores the differences between conventional Red Delicious and heirloom Belles du Boskoop in comparing apples with apples, makes him sound more like the heartless businessman behind institutional cuisine than a passionate foodie. Just as focusing on transportation costs in food production is a red herring to environmentalists, focusing on efficiency in food production is largely irrelevant to people whose priorities include health, social justice, and flavor.

The author is correct that a city’s efficiencies force certain lifestyle standards on people in the city that give them smaller environmental footprints. 24 hour subway service is an efficiency that works for the most populous city in the United States, not so well for the Pioneer Valley. But why not encourage city folks, as Shel Horowitz suggests, to use spaces that wouldn’t be otherwise used? New Yorkers are not likely to drop off the grid entirely. They’re going to grow a few salad vegetables, and hopefully take ownership of their diets in a new way.

Consider those rooftop greens a gateway drug to lining up like “junkies,” as Boisvert describes those of us with farm shares. Some items in the reasonably priced (for organic) share box will represent a challenge at first, but the lifestyle changes of eating locally have made us more resourceful consumers: better educated, more confident, with more real answers to the question, “What’s for dinner?”

Instead of having respect for the people who produce his food, Boisvert thinks that growing your own arugula is work properly done by “Mexicans”, middle class urbanites who do it for the vegetables and a sense of accomplishment are suckers, and CSAs are “the worst food deal imaginable.” He imagines fresh produce as no more nutritious than canned , and a hydroponic operation in a Brooklyn warehouse as locally grown food. But canned food is cooked, which destroys nutrients in fruits and vegetables, and hydro is more factory than farm.

In hydroponics, there’s no terroir to convey the distinctive flavors and nutritive qualities of the soil, making locale irrelevant, and there’s no sun as a free energy input for plants. Instead, there are grow lights and vitamin solutions: micro-factory farming. This is convenient for restaurants and grocers that want delicate greens delivered on a just in time basis, year-round, but as Boisvert points out, it’s not an efficient use of energy to produce food. It also doesn’t teach city folk to respect the origins of their food, but to expect it to conform to the same control and mechanization as other aspects of city life.

Every solution has to be localized, even if it partakes of global solutions. In New York City, foodies seeking ingredients from upscale groceries and farmer’s markets can add local hydroponic salad greens to their options. As well as scouring the city for goods, aspirant urban locavores have their rooftops on which to grow, although there is the concern Horowitz raises, that the air up there is no cleaner than at ground level, and not as clean as the air in California, or the Hudson Valley.

But rooftop arugula and hydroponic mache are additions to, not replacements for, what feeds the vast majority of New Yorkers: the fields of not just California, but the world. The U.S. may be self-sufficient in the staple crops that make industrial food, but the foods we eat fresh, livestock and produce, are increasingly grown in other parts of the world. The USDA puts very little emphasis on the importance of fresh, raw, and green vegetables in our diets, as reflected by the tiny percentage of USDA subsidies that go to garden crops, and the gradual de-emphasis of vegetables in dietary guidelines.

Which brings us to the real issue at hand, the priorities on which we base our lifestyle choices. True urban locavorism may be science fiction (or a future dystopia of vat food), but urban food production on a small scale is currently being practiced, if not for its efficiency, than for other qualities important to people, such as freshness, nutrient density, flavor, and novelty.

---Image of NYC rooftop garden credit: Jeffrey/Flickr

Friday, July 5, 2013

What is food?

Let me ask you: does this look like food to you?

Michael Pollan says to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Yet some non-foods fill the shelves of “health” emporiums and websites. Sites, books, and articles that purport to be about and for good health can’t even get the “food” part of Pollan’s advice right. How do they screw it up so bad?

What is food, anyway? Food isn’t just whatever you can swallow that won’t kill you on the spot. Food is a biological necessity and for humans, it’s a cultural necessity, as well. Everybody eats. And before the advent of industrial “food,” everybody ate food. It was as easy as that. Now, we have to trace our food back to its origins to be sure it is 100% food.

Food is necessary to life, and food is made from living matter. Pollan says to eat “mostly plants.” Besides plants, there are fungi and animals we can eat. The other substances we must ingest regularly to survive are water, sodium chloride (sea salt), and sunshine (or vitamin D). Everything we need to live can come from a diet of living things in our environment: this is what we have always eaten, for more than a million years.

Today’s industrial diet includes multivitamins, energy drinks, and countless foods containing chemical flavors, colors, and preservatives. The very plants and animals in these foods may be genetically modified organisms, or raised on them. Corn, soy, and other animal feeds are among the most common GMOs on the market, and GM salmon is being considered for approval for the US market. Some foods are irradiated, including fresh meat, seafood, eggs, and produce, sprouting seeds, and spices. The US government does not require labeling for GMOs. It does require labeling for irradiated food; the US label for irradiated food is called a “Radura symbol,” and looks like this:

Radura: see "Healthwashing", "Greenwashing"

Vitamin pills include synthetic versions of naturally occurring elements, that are not identical to the natural forms: they are isomer, or mirror images, of the naturally occurring versions. Close, but not so close that the body does not treat them differently, or that they do not have a negative effect on the body when they are incorporated as if they were the real thing. Doctors selling expensive vitamin supplements will happily explain some of the toxic synthetics that they do not use in their pills. Naturally Occurring Standards for vitamins are being proposed by the Organic Consumers Organization.

But supplements aren’t just in pills: this post from The Healthy Home Economist contains info on the dangers of cheap synthetic vitamins added to nut milks. Check for yourself to see if your fortified breakfast cereals, energy bars and drinks, and dietary supplements use these toxic versions of nutrients. Niacin, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, and other common nutrients are synthetic, and not identical to their naturally occurring counterparts.

Activists have been increasingly noting how industrial food and the pharmaceutical industry are becoming less distinct from one another. Carlos Monteiros, writing for the World Public Health Nutrition Association website on industrial food that makes health claims, notes: “In 2010 Tang delivered 20 billion servings in 90 countries. It is very profitable, at 37 per cent, the kind of return usually associated with successful pharmaceuticals.”

With one hand, Kraft Foods and other giant food manufacturers sell us “health foods” like Tang that are secretly toxic, and with another hand that is twice as large, Kraft sells us snack foods that we know are bad for us, but we eat anyway. We think we’re being good when we drink our Tang (or Red Bull, or Slim Fast, or Vitamin Water), but we’re actually drinking poisonous chemical slurries to wash down the rancid, genetically modified, refined products we call “fast food” or snacks. None of this is food, and it’s not simply unhealthy: it’s killing us.

What are the health risks of eating such a diet? Cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes... the big killers are industrial foods. And who stands to benefit when the majority of people have nothing else to eat but food that causes disease? Other than food manufacturers, it’s pharmaceutical companies who stand to profit from our misery. Which brings us to another category of non-food: antibiotics.

The word “antibiotic” means “against life.” Antibiotics kill other living things. We use them medicinally to kill bacteria that cause disease. But when they’re used broadly, they breed resistance into the organisms that harm us. Despite the long term implications, farmers continue to use broad spectrum antibiotics and give them routinely to all their livestock, whether they’re healthy or sick, to prevent illness and increase the size of their animals. A short term side effect of antibiotic use in this fashion is that it makes the animals bigger when they don’t devote any resources to fighting infection. The same appears to be true of plants that are routinely sprayed with pesticides. Though we have won regulation for organically raised plants, the USDA has given up on restricting antibiotic use in livestock, leaving it up to the consumer to seek out meat, fish, and dairy that haven’t been fed antibiotics.

Food is made from living things. To be healthy, eat a life based diet. Consider foods from the sea, dark leafy greens, fats, cultured foods, and other fresh foods that are highly nutrient dense as alternatives to your multivitamins and energy drinks, and for breakfast and snacks, the meals we most often eat from packages. Work a little for your food. Know what you’re eating. And keep looking for alternatives to the industrial diet. Maybe you don’t think you like anchovies and kale yet (Kale, Caesar!) But how could anything taste worse than Red Bull?

Image credit: stevendepolo/Flickr