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We should remain open to all food choices

By Cam Dahl
web posted April 18, 2011

Everyone should have the right to buy the food they want, whether or not those decisions are healthy or environmentally friendly.  But individual preferences should not be forced on others or be turned into regulations that restrict the choices of farmers and consumers.

Do the food choices we make impact the environment?  Are our choices sending the right message to policy makers?  Are we basing our choices on fact or perception?  Not many of us will ask ourselves these questions when we make the daily run to the grocery store, but we should.

Food movements like "organic" and "buy locally" have received a lot of attention in the last few years.  These options are touted as healthy and environmentally friendly food choices.  But are they?

Let's take the environmental question.  A review of organic production in the United Kingdom has found that organic milk requires 80% more land and releases about twice as much pollution into the watershed when compared with traditional dairy farming.  The same study found that organic tomatoes require a land base ten times as large as conventional production and consume about 25% more energy than conventional tomatoes.

Does this mean you shouldn't drink organic milk or eat organic tomatoes?  No, just don't think that your choice will help the environment.

There is nothing wrong with buying organic, but consumers should be aware that many of the products that conventional farmers use were developed to ensure the safety of our food supply and not just to improve yields.  Outbreaks of e. coli in products like spinach and sprouts should remind all Canadians that organic food is not necessarily safer or healthier.   

What about "eat locally"? It must be a healthy, environmental choice right?  Well, perhaps not.  It turns out that it takes more energy to grow vegetables in heated greenhouses in Ontario than to ship them from the southern US or Mexico.  So that local asparagus might actually have a much higher carbon footprint.

What should concern you about movements like "organic" or "eat locally" are the political elements attached to them.  If local and organic are good, then conventional agriculture or imported vegetables must be bad.  We hear terms like "factory farms" or "corporate agriculture" bandied about like swear words to support these causes.

This is almost unavoidable with movements.  What might have started out as an individual choice morphs into a belief that those choices should be imposed on others and that government should implement policies aimed at supporting the movement's goals.  These political aspects inevitably aim to denigrate existing practices and limit the choices of others; in this case for both farmers and other consumers.

But before we start asking government to intervene, we should have an objective look at the environmental impact of modern agriculture.  Global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000.  This was the "green revolution" that continues to feed the world today.  However, agriculture only used 10% more land to generate this three-fold increase in production.  Achieving the same results without modern farming practices would have required at least three times as much land.

Hungry people, faced with a choice between eating and conserving the environment will choose to eat every time.  So how much rainforest would have been cut down if modern agriculture had been ignored in favour of more traditional production practices?

Modern Canadian farming practices are part of the solution to environmental concerns.  For example, enhanced soil management and improved cropping practices provide a significant tool for carbon sequestration.  Improvements to nutrient management practices are reducing water pollution.  Technology such as global positioning is allowing farmers to place nutrients precisely where they are needed, improving their profitability while reducing leaching into watersheds.  Often these beneficial management practices would not be possible without modern farming tools, including pesticides, fertilizers and new plant varieties.

This does not mean agriculture is environmentally perfect.  There is still room for improvement, but farmers are actively taking the steps necessary to meet environmental goals.  Legislation or regulation based on perception and confrontation, rather than science and cooperation, will hinder these efforts. 

I like my local farmers market.  I like the flavour and quality of the food that I purchase there.  But I know that I am not saving the environment by choosing the farmers market over the supermarket.  When we choose to buy organic or shop locally, let's recognize that this is an individual choice.  Let's not expect others to follow our lead because it is the "right thing to do".  And please, let's not ask governments to force our lifestyle preferences on others.  That just might harm the environment. ESR

Cam Dahl is a research associate with the Frontier Centre. He is a former Canadian Grain Commissioner, and has 20 years of experience in agribusiness, lobbying and in work within the Parliament of Canada.


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