Efficiency and Sustainability: two very different concepts!

Today I read another article in the Ontario Farmer, that I really didn’t agree with, entitled “Buying Local Foods not the best option for being green.” It even mentioned that the research it was reporting was “bound to curl the noses of organic and local food purists”. I wouldn’t say that I’m a purist by any means but I have been known to attend the local farmers market and talk to urban, local and organic producers; they are right the research did curl my nose.  It curled my nose because it made a few rather impressively large assumptions and seemed to directly equate fuel efficiency with environmental sustainability. These things are very different, hence the existence of two unique words in the English language to describe them; although, the author used them interchangeably.  I decided that I would find the original research article and make sure that the portrayal of the research in the Ontario farmer article was accurate, which it was. The research article was very well written, well researched, and had tried it’s best to take into account some variables commonly left out of such comparisons. All in all it was a scientifically accurate and well reasoned with-in its assumptions; so why am I still upset?  Well the problem is that although the paper “uses a life-cycle assessment model which evaluates all inputs and outputs within the food system” it does exactly that and nothing more.   I’m upset because I don’t agree with some of the assumptions.

The first assumption that they made is that all choices are and should be made on the efficiency of the production of a food product. This assumption that the only factor that should be taken into account is how little inputs we can use to make the greatest output is the definition of efficiency not sustainability. In fact this push to produce more and more with less and less is what has gotten agriculture into the mess we are in, with the price of food so low that farmers require subsidies, consumers taking food for granted and diet linked health issues soring! That is not a picture of sustainability which takes into account so many other issues, including externalities for which the food system is not held responsible, including health problems, environmental impacts such as contaminated ground water and oceans, and the list goes on and on.  This simple assumption the authors made put a major bias on the paper pushing it towards industrial agriculture.

The second assumption that the authors made was that a shift of purchasing from grocery stores and industrial agriculture to local and non-conventional agriculture was the only food related shift that consumers were  making. This assumption is not always valid, consumers who purchase local food on a regular basis also learn more about the food they are purchasing and its impacts. They learn about cooking and nutrition and begin to make new decisions about how much and what types of food they are eating. They chose to eat less meat and dairy products as they have higher overall cost to the environment, and begin to purchase more vegetables and traditional crops that have much smaller environmental footprints. Some even take the step towards producing their own food in their own back yards, perhaps even raising a few chickens. These changes result in much different environmental impact then the paper concluded.

This made me wonder who funded the study as the article stated there were no government funds, NGO’s or private companies involved in funding, then where did it come from, who else funds studies like this? Well one of the authors is listed as being from Elanco Animal Health of Greenfield, IN, a private animal health company in operation in over 75 countries. Or in other words a multinational corporation, which happened to have pirchased the Bovine Growth Hormone from Monsanto in 2008, the other to authors are professors in animal science at Washington State and Cornell University. Even if Elanco didn’t provide funding for the study, having someone from the corporation as one of the 3 authors is a clear conflict of interest on the part of the university researchers.

Therefore I feel that the overall conclusions made by this paper are inaccurate.  Although the authors facts and comparisons are accurate and follow logically within the parameters and assumptions they developed for the study, I take issue with those parameters and assumptions as I feel they do not reflect the true actions of local food advocates and are heavily biased towards conventional agri-business.

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2 Responses to Efficiency and Sustainability: two very different concepts!

  1. Owen says:

    I appreciate how you did your own research on this story.

    And I agree with the economics portion of this statement:

    “…This push to produce more and more with less and less is what has gotten agriculture into the mess we are in, with the price of food so low that farmers require subsidies, consumers taking food for granted and diet linked health issues soring [SP]!”

    However, your position, while clear, seems contradictory. You say this:

    “The research article was very well written, well researched, and had tried it’s [SP] best to take into account some variables commonly left out of such comparisons. All in all it was a scientifically accurate and well reasoned with-in its assumptions…”

    However, you then say you don’t like the article’s foundational assumptions, and in conclusion, you dismiss it in part because it involved a corporate researcher.

    This sounds a bit like the results of the blindfolded taste test, where the participant liked the taste of the product until the blindfold was removed.

    Let’s keep open minds. Corporate involvement in research does not automatically demonize it. You’re right that there are many aspects of local food issue that go far beyond the ledger line. But so are there aspects of corporate involvement in research that will hopefully solve problems, despite the fact that shareholders are making money in the process.

    • I wasn’t planning on basing my argument on the fact that one of the researchers was corporate, it was just one more thing that I felt led to the downfall of the paper. I’ve actually worked on a scientific research project that had private backing and do realize that it doesn’t automatically make the research bad.
      What I was trying to say was that if you assume the same assumptions that the researchers assumed it was decent science but that I have fundamental issues with those assumptions. I also feel that the corporate interest in the research had something to do with those assumptions and therefore led to the downfall in this specific case.
      Hope that explains my viewpoint better.

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