Thursday, August 04, 2005

Passport Cuisine

Here’s a few questions to ponder before you sit down for dinner. What nationality is your food? What country did it originate from? No, not the meal but its core ingredients…because chances are that your food came from just about everywhere.
Take for example, this picture. This was a good representative sample of what I ate today. Can you guess how many countries were involved? While you ponder that, let’s take a peek at the Unplanner’s globalized eating habits and tally up the ecological damage wrought from eating across the planet.
For breakfast I ate oatmeal with bananas. Being somewhat health conscious, I am well aware of the benefits of oatmeal and fresh fruit. My oatmeal as usual, originates from the US Midwest, grain capital of the world, via Chicago. Today’s bananas were Panamanian. While the oatmeal was probably trucked over here, bananas were flown in. Not counting the sugar I sprinkled on, breakfast traveled 5500 miles to get to my plate.
Lunch was not my usual sandwiches. Today I had an extra nutritious, pre-packaged burrito. Okay so it wasn’t extra nutritious, but it was convenient. It also traveled some 250 miles from the LA area via a frozen food truck and personal vehicle to get to my office microwave. Of course the factory didn’t just make the burrito from scratch, so who knows where all the component ingredients originated from. Not wishing to speculate, I will only charge myself 250 miles. That’s okay because for snack I had a fresh apple…
Now, I know apples are grown in substantial quantities here in the US, but alas, I wanted a fresh one. So I picked what was currently available, a Chilean Gala apple and consumed nearly 5000 more miles worth of food.
Dinner was simple: fish, rice and salad. It certainly wasn’t local, not by a long shot. The prepackaged salad (because making salad is sooo hard…) was picked and packed not far from me in Monterey County. At slightly less than 175 miles, it perhaps was the most local item I ate all day. I more than made for that with my balsamic vinegar dressing which was produced in Italy, packaged in Spain and imported to Fresno, for a whopping 7000 total miles of travel. Fortunately most of that was by ship. My fish on the other hand had nothing to do with ships whatsoever. It was raised on a farm more than 7500 miles away in southern China (see picture) and flown directly here. My rice in comparison was US grown and packaged. Rice-a-Roni, that San Francisco treat is apparently not San Franciscan any longer, but it still originates from within the US. For a lack of more information, I will charge myself 500 miles for this side.
Finally, not content with my global jaunt I also snacked on a Duvalin, that Mexico City candy (1500 miles) and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The bread is apparently from the LA area as well (250 miles) while the jam originated from Ohio (3000 miles). The Organic peanut butter originated from—Canada?? Yes you read that right, Canada. It was packaged in Canada from peanuts grown in warmer climates, most likely the US South. Hopefully, I say because peanuts are also grown for export from Africa, Argentina and Brazil. Let’s assume 5000 miles for the peanut butter. It’s a good thing I had water to drink instead of washing it down with milk produced only 4 miles from my house, but trucked down to LA, bottled and returned for nearly 400 extra miles of travel.
So all in all, I ate food from eight countries that traveled a whopping 35,675 collective miles to my plate via truck, train, boat and plane before being picked up and driven home by me in a personal vehicle.
While this arrangement makes perfect sense economically, it is utterly insane from an energetic standpoint and ultimately not sustainable. Throughout human history, man has sustained himself on the slight energetic surplus gained from localized, labor intensive food production. Cultivation was demanding and required a significant percent of the population to be involved agricultural production. Industrialization totally rearranged this set up. Machinery replaced the labors of man and beast and chemical manipulation brought forth a bounty the likes of which had never been before. All of this of course occurred at a huge energetic cost.
But the manipulation of global food production was not limited to the farm. Packers, distributors, processors and grocers are all now participants in our globalized supply chain. Everything now revolves around reducing costs and improving output from the farming level on up to your local supermarket. Whole regions of the world have transitioned from subsistence level agriculture to cash crop production, often displacing original inhabitants. Small mom and pop family farms and markets have given way to today’s factory farms and SuperWalmarts.
Food has never been cheaper, more plentiful and always in season, thanks to our globalized market place. Strawberries in January? No problem. Fresh fish in Kansas? No problem. Our distribution network ensures that a demand in one part of the world is always supplied from somewhere else. It also ensures that no one starves. A drought in the Midwest one year or a freeze in the San Joaquin Valley the next year does not result in mass starvation in those areas. Food from elsewhere will fill the gap. Even areas experiencing catastrophic droughts, such as Niger, still can receive food aid that will ultimately save the population from a greater famine.
At the same time today’s food has never been more expensive, in terms of energetic requirements. All of the chemical and mechanical processes involved in modern food production are energy intensive. So is the massive amount of transportation that is required to move this bounty from one part of the world to another. All of this is thanks to cheap energy.
Once the supply of cheap energy dries up, the global supermarket will become a thing of the past. The implication of this change is very disturbing and extends far beyond whether or not a shopper in Topeka will still be able get fresh strawberries in January. The problem is unfortunately much more fundamental than that. In an energy-deprived future the more fundamental question has to be asked: will we have any reliable form of food distribution at all? With large tracts of the world engaged in one form of monoculture or another, what will we all end up having for dinner, absent a coherent transition to localized cultivation of produce and grains?
That’s of course if we still have the energy to cultivate in the first place.
In all likelihood, the regions that survive the Great Unraveling will be those areas that mastered the switch from the industrialized model of corporate agriculture to a labor intensive cultivation of whatever that needs to be consumed locally by their residents. Those that fail to adapt will die off. It’s that easy.
And for those of you that wish to continue to see strawberries in January, my suggestion to you would be to build a green house.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

UNplanner is just scratching the surface of the issue here. If the food distribution trucks stop showing up at your local supermarket, or lessen their frequency, from where do you get your food (calories and nutrients)? After all the stored food is used up, what then? If you are a carnivore, are you going to raise your own meat? What food will you feed this or these animals while you are waiting to kill them? Are you going to grow their food? After you slaughter them, how will you store their meat without refrigeration?
Say you turn vegetarian, how will you grow your vegetables? You realize, of course, that most vegetables have very few calories, so you'll have to rely upon grains (ever grown them?) or fruits (excellent source of calories.) If you have access to fruit trees, will they grow in all seasons (or do you plan to fast for three months during the winter?)
The further north you live, the shorter the growing season. It's ironic that in time, we may see North Americans migrating to Mexico and central america because they have year round growing seasons. We'll be tearing down our border fences to get to their fruit trees in Chiapas.
Much of the predicted dieoff will come from starvation of those in the norther latitudes, a long slow way to die. Just look at what is happening in Niger on the evening news.
Even assuming you are able to grow some food of some kind, are you living in a remote enough area that others won't take it away from you by force?
When the great unwinding begins, it'll be all about the food, on an hourly basis.

8/05/2005 11:13 AM  
Blogger baloghblog said...

Well I agree that it is scary to wonder what would happen if the food trucks stopped pulling up to the grocery store, I have to disagree that the "northern latitudes" are a poor choice to be able to grow food and support the masses, despite the shorter growing season.

While the diet maybe more limited in winter, bread from stored grain flour, potatoes and other root veggies, apples from the root cellar, canned tomato preserves, etc., there is ample fresh water supply from snow melt in the spring, fertile river valleys to allow a sustainable harvest to be produced each year. There is less of a chance of drought, and more access to fresh water to drink. I can't say that about the southwest and Mexico.

As far as protein goes, there are rabbits that, well, breed like rabbits, deer, fish in the streams and lakes (ice fishing too). Anyways I could go on and on. There is no doubt that food shortages would be hell on the population no matter where you lived. I just wanted to add a counterpoint from the "northern perspective." I look at the west and the south with their massive irrigation projects and wonder how they would last a year without cheap oil.

8/05/2005 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An interesting lesson in food economics!
The food we consume is no longer local, and it is important that we understand the reason why.
As consumers, we tap into the entire planet.
This isn't because we wish to be particularly is the globalization of big business.
I would prefer to buy my Levis from California (as they used to be) and my produce locally.
The historic models of manufacture and consumption used to be local...when transportation costs, combined with labor costs, plus the technology of manufacturing made it good practice to produce regionally.
Big business has blown this all apart.
Globalization has always been entirely dependent on cheap transportation fuel. There is no escaping this model.
Just as in the manufacturing of electronic components, textiles, and millions of other goods and services...big business has relocated where the cost of labor reduced their overhead.
That has been their prime concern.
This was indeed the victory of capital over labor.
The same thing has happened with food. Not only did it make sense for big business to take a dime's worth of potato and process it into a dollar's worth of re-constituted fast made sense to conglomerate the entire food production mechanism into a total package. You own everything from the land food is grown upon to the retail outlet that sells the final product. And I mean everything in between.
When you do this, and grow big enough, you can deal in economies of scale that make great distances covered affordable...and ultimately profitable.
The critical component in this model is, of transportation costs.
When this is no longer the case, as with many things, food production will have to return to local and regional.
I don't suppose too many people will care much about strawberries in January.
Jim Hightower wrote a delightful book way back in 1975...(I can't remember offhand the title) that is remarkable in its insights, considering that it was published 30 years ago.
In it, he talks about the changes in the food industry that turned "agriculture" into "agribusiness."
They are two entirely different things.
I believe the single most important factor in all of this is...economy of scale.
When production is reduced back down to a truly agricultural model, not only do we get better quality, more nutritious food, but we also get something that is truly sustainable, ecologically more responsible...and something that will bring food production back to a community level, creating more employment ultimately, than it takes away.
Real food...whole food...that ultimately supports a local and regional agricultural community.

Within living memory, this was the very root of North American economy....the original reason for land value (compared to speculation on future subdivisions and sprawl.)
Hightower stated in this book...that a family-sized farm up to a certain size was the most efficient use of the land for producing food. Agribusiness has not improved on this fact, in some cases is far less efficient.
In most populated parts of North America, the majority of staples can be produced locally.
Beyond that, much of our tropical consumption need go no further than the Carribean...not that far away.
I suppose something like olive oil would be a luxury...
Will I miss Kiwi fruit? Perhaps...but a good Georgia peach satisfies just as well!

8/24/2005 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Philip B. / Washington, DC said...

Here is a new (and challenging) diet:

Living on the Hundred-Mile Diet

and here's a site that lists local organic growers (among many other things), searchable by U.S. state.

-- Philip B. / Washington, DC

9/01/2005 8:24 AM  
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10/09/2005 11:50 PM  

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