AGRICULTURE, SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: ARE WE DOING IT RIGHT?

This series on "Agriculture, Sustainability and the Environment: Are we doing it right?" focuses on agriculture and environmental related theories and issues on the ground. Our writers focus on describing how humans impact environment in many different ways through various agricultural practices that have serious sustainability implications for the future of our environment. You are welcome to leave comments on the research and ideas shared in the posts for this series.

RE-FRAMING OUR CLIMATE CONVERSATIONS:TAKING A “BIRD’S EYE VIEW” OF OUR COMPLEX HUMAN FOOD SYSTEMS

By Nicole Welk-Joerger

Earlier, I wrote about how research on methane gas has promoted new attention toward how beef and milking cattle farming may be affecting our environment.  Worries about methane gas have led to the development of many different “envirotechnical” solutions to lower overall emissions, but I ended my exploration with a statement I borrowed from Donna Haraway.  Before we can start to execute real change in our food systems, we need to start “eating well together” [1].

To “eat well together” is not just a comment on the multispecies relationships we have with our food animals or animal companions.  It is a call to pay closer attention to how certain kinds of eating can create different social and environmental circumstances.  Taking a bird’s eye view of the system (and highlighting the many different stories that emerge within it) can help us start constructive conversations about such change, with particular focus on the greenhouse gas emissions we believe are altering our earth’s climate.  

Figure 1: Food System Map highlighting many parts of our human food system [2]. Source: Nourish Life. For larger version see: http://www.nourishlife.org/pdf/Nourish_Food_System_Map_8.5x11.pdf.

Figure 1: Food System Map highlighting many parts of our human food system [2]. Source: Nourish Life. For larger version see: http://www.nourishlife.org/pdf/Nourish_Food_System_Map_8.5x11.pdf.

How are our current eating habits affecting the environment?  As I mentioned before, it isn’t all about the meat and milk market, or even methane. If we revisit some of the graphs from the IPCC and EPA reports I mentioned covering overall greenhouse gas emissions, you will notice that carbon dioxide is overwhelmingly a culprit of the changes we are seeing – more so than methane [3]. Just as some solutions to methane are being visited culturally and techno-scientifically, so must solutions to CO2 emissions. To address CO2, we must turn our attention to the larger, more complicated aspects of our whole food system: including production, transportation, and processing. These parts reveal spaces where consumer demand could both drive and inhibit change in our food systems.


Production

It is estimated that 12,000 mega tonnes of carbon dioxide are released each year through our food production system [4]. This makes production the stage in our food systems with the most impact on the environment. The mega tonnes produced in this stage are in part due to the machines used to plant and harvest grains, fruits, and vegetables for human and animal consumption, as well as the production and use of the fertilizer for these plants. Efforts to increase production in the fight against world hunger between the 1930s and 1970s (known as the “Green Revolution”) are partially to blame for these now normalized production practices.  Given these historic pushes in acreage and yields, today there is increased focus and blame on large-scale farms for these CO2 emissions.

While this focus on large-scale production is valid in many ways, it has created narratives that are not necessarily conducive to addressing worldwide CO2 production, or at least in discussing it in a constructive way. One of these narratives pins large-scale against small-scale farming, describing large-scale farmers as further removed from their practices, their land, and their animals for the sake of money.  While this may be true for some farms, many farmers that are considered “big” farmers are pushing back against this narrative – not just for marketing reasons, but for personal culturally-based and family-based reasons.  Historian Deborah Fitzgerald may refer to this shift as a re-orientation of the “industrial ideal” that has been developing since the early 20th century [5].  In blogs, tweets, editorials, and articles, these farmers emphasize how science and technology have allowed agricultural growth but not insensibility. On the contrary, large-scale farmers boast similar passions and similar ownership (namely, family ownership) to small-scale ones.  They voice that the pinning of farmers against one another given scale and practice is largely unjustified.  Rather, these campaigns note that solutions to greenhouse gas emissions among other agricultural problems including pollution, biodiversity, and animal welfare need to be made together. This makes small-scale, organic, large-scale, and industrial all accountable for feeding the world in a way that does not compromise the environment, consumer health, or the livelihood of the families owning the businesses.

Figure 2: Poster from CommonGround, an organization of farmers dedicated to educating the public about large-scale practices.  Source: CommonGround.

Figure 2: Poster from CommonGround, an organization of farmers dedicated to educating the public about large-scale practices.  Source: CommonGround.

Transportation    

Over the past century, technologies have allowed our taste buds to stretch across regions and continents.  This has had significant cultural and environmental consequences. Culturally, transportation and the technologies of freshness during transit (including refrigeration) has allowed for diversified as well as consistent tastes.  We can consume certain fruits and vegetables year-round rather than being confined to seasonal or regional limitations.  The costs of such luxury are difficult to distill. The concept of “food miles” was originally developed as an attempt to focus on parts of the food system that directly addressed concerns with climate change.  However, studies have shown that food miles are not enough to go on to understand the environmental impact of food transportation.  Some research has shown that overall transportation from field to table (when thinking of trains, planes, and automobiles) only accounts for 15% of life cycle greenhouse gas emissions.  Refrigeration in-between transportation, however, has proved to be one of the most energy-intensive components of our food systems.  Around 71% of Coca-Cola’s carbon footprint is calculated to be from refrigeration and sales and marketing equipment [6].

Figure 3: Screenshot of the New England Food Vision “exploration” on their website.  Source: Food Solutions New England.

Figure 3: Screenshot of the New England Food Vision “exploration” on their website.  Source: Food Solutions New England.

Though food transportation has proven more complicated as more studies are conducted, efforts are being made in the U.S. today pushing back toward more regional-focused food production. One example sits in A New England Food Vision (NEFV), a report and mission through Food Solutions New England to create a more regionally sustainable food system. The project aims to have the New England area produce fifty percent of its food source by 2060 – reducing reliance on environmentally unsustainable global transit and economically unsustainable outsourcing of labor.  NEFV uses work by local environmental historians such as Brian Donahue to develop the vision – using the history of the region as both cautionary tale and positive exemplar for future environmental stewardship [7].  Eating locally and boasting “local-vore” diets has become a new consumer focus that is understood to have a larger impact on food systems rather than product-based (carnivore/omnivore/herbivore) diets.  
 

Processing

The environmental consequences of food processing are equally complex and varied; entangled in a web of capitalist idealism, technological innovation, and cultural practice. While it may be assumed that industrialized processing creates the largest environmental impact, the reality is much more complex. A nuanced example lies in the case of San Vitaliano, an Italian comune considered part of the metropolitan city of Naples.  

The city of Naples is considered the pizza capital of the world, and has been for a long time.  Travel writers, including Francis de Bourcard and Alexandre Dumas, have commented on the “flat dough circles” eaten by the lazzarone (poor city residents) since the early 19th century. Pizza captured the hearts of these travelers, and has since spread globally as a universally desirable dish.  But the traditional way to prepare pizza has been a recent point of concern in Italy.  Earlier this year, news stories highlighted a temporary ban that was issued on the use of wood stove ovens within San Vitaliano – stoves that are used primarily by pizzerias in the making of traditional brick-oven pizza [8].  The reason for the ban was air pollution. San Vitaliano has been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, with smog comparable to (if not worse than) Beijing.  The edict was meant as a step toward improving air quality, but it was not well received. Protests were launched by local residents reiterating that the smog could not have been from pizza making – turning attentions to industry and automobiles.

Regardless, filtering systems in restaurants were encouraged to be updated and were at the very least reevaluated based on local and global regulations [9].

Photo 1: Pizza maker in San Vitaliano.  Source: New York Times. 

Photo 1: Pizza maker in San Vitaliano.  Source: New York Times. 

Problems in “slow” food are one thing; problems in “fast” food are another.  The many parts of faster food processing, including cooking, canning, freezing, packaging, waste, and even advertising at the larger company level, accounts for 28.1 percent of total energy use in American food systems [10].  These are the parts of larger, worldwide food systems that are considered the “low-hanging fruit” for change.  Food industry reports, including one from the UK, suggest that diverting waste through compost and recycling, and reducing paper use in advertising and packaging are some of the easiest ways for a company to lower its carbon footprint [11].  Food service is also gaining more attention within the processing sector, with food service workers encouraged to bike and carpool to reduce emissions.  But carbon emissions are just the tip of the iceberg of problems that need to be addressed when focusing on workers in the processing sector.  As laid out in Ted Genoways’ popular book The Chain (2014), slaughterhouses and packinghouses reap stories of underpaid immigrant workers and dangerous working conditions.   Workers who remain healthy are pushed to increase their paces in meat cutting, while the injured are often forced out of their jobs [12].  Social inequity is produced and reproduced within the many stages of our food system, but it often is obscured by its limited visibility.  We need to consider how technoscientific solutions to greenhouse emissions in each part of the system may affect these social circumstances, for better or worse, and who is being asked to change behaviors to combat emissions over others.

Figure 4: The Chain (2014) by Ted Genoways. Source: Google Images

Figure 4: The Chain (2014) by Ted Genoways. Source: Google Images

My bird’s eye view is very limited and only highlights a few small stories that illustrate the complicated relationships holding some of our food systems together. It is important to understand that what we buy and eat contributes to the economic demand and thus concretization of one system over another. Is embracing the “local-vore,” as NEFV proposes, the answer to these problems? If corporate farms are really family farms, what other consequences may emerge if we choose to dismantle this system?  How might we combat climate change and social inequity together through our food choices?  These are not easy questions to answer, but we need to start asking them by looking at how they interact within these larger, “bird’s eye” views. 

Endnotes:

[1] Haraway, Donna J.  When Species Meet. University Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

[2] Transportation is considered “economic” on this map, and processing is not included.  One critique I have of this visual is that it is focused so much on the consumer that it leaves out the “food culture” that could be impacting other parts of the system, namely production.

[3] Note, particularly, the first figure in the previous blog post: http://www.ppehlab.org/blogposts/2016/5/10/agriculture-suagriculture-sustainability-and-the-environment-are-we-doing-it-right-sustainability-and-the-environment-are-we-doing-it-right

[4] Gilbert, Natasha. “One-Third of Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions Come from Agriculture.” Nature, October 31, 2012. doi:10.1038/nature.2012.11708;  Vermeulen, Sonja A., Bruce M. Campbell, and John S.I. Ingram. “Climate Change and Food Systems.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37, no. 1 (November 21, 2012): 195–222. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-020411-130608

[5] Fitzgerald, Deborah Kay. Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture. Yale University Press, 2003.

[6] Weber, Christopher L., and H. Scott Matthews. “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States.” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 10 (May 1, 2008): 3508–13. doi:10.1021/es702969f.

[7] Donahue, Brian, et al. A New England Food Vision. Durham, NH: Food Solutions New England, University of New Hampshire, 2014 (see also http://www.foodsolutionsne.org/new-england-food-vision) ; Donahue, Brian. The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

[8] Monitoring, B. B. C. “Italy: Town Bans Pizza-Making over Soaring Pollution.” BBC News. Accessed May 18, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-35161213; Povoledo, Elisabetta. “In the Birthplace of Pizza, Pollution Rules for Ovens Spur Outrage.” The New York Times, January 7, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/08/world/europe/in-the-birthplace-of-pizza-pollution-rules-for-ovens-spur-outrage.html.

[9] Similar filtering efforts were encouraged in New York a few years earlier to comply with EPA regulations focused on air pollution.  See “Coal on Ice! City Wants to Raise Price of Coal-Oven Pizza.” The Brooklyn Paper. Accessed May 18, 2016. http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/37/23/all-coal-oven-pizza-urban-legend-2014-05-23-bk_37_23.html.

[10] Pirog, Rich S., Timothy Van Pelt, Kamyar Enshayan, and Ellen Cook. "Food, fuel, and freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions." (2001).

[11] Sheehan, Elizabeth et. al.  Carbon Emissions in the Food and Beverage Sector.  Climate Smart Businesses, Inc., 2014.

[12] Genoways, Ted. The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food. New York, NY: Harper, 2014; Schlosser, Eric. “‘The Chain,’ by Ted Genoways.” The New York Times, November 21, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/books/review/the-chain-by-ted-genoways.html.

 

Nicole Welk-Joerger is a PhD student in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her current research interests focus on the intersections of human and animal health, with particular attention to issues in public health, food studies, environmental history, and the history of technology. Tweet her @welkjoerger.