In Defense of Food Policy

By Meena

Our series of cases on food supply chain resonated with me, and I find them particularly relevant to the larger topics in energy and environment that we have discussed.

Food has always been a central part of tradition and family life across cultures. While innovation in preparation and packaging have certainly broadened the variety and quality of food people have access to across the world, I believe that these changes have also allowed us in developed societies to take things for granted and be wasteful in really an unbelievable way (1) — and harming our own bodies while at it.

On a macro level, the first consideration is the energy that has gone into bringing that avocado from Mexico to my table, and then to my local landfill when I forget about it at the back of my fridge. Next, depending on location, easily over 30% of landfill volume tends to be organic material (mostly food), which not only contributes to waste management costs, but also results in greenhouse gas (methane) production in facilities that are not properly managed or equipped to collect and channel this gas.

Once already en route to a landfill, perhaps the answer lies at the municipality level, as we have identified with other issues as well in class. For instance, municipalities have also innovating in landfill gas-to-energy projects that harness the methane gas already being generated to supplement power production (2). While this is an interesting approach to mitigating the problem once it has been created, I believe that more strident moves to shape consumer behavior from the get-go.

San Francisco for instance has an ambitious set of Zero Waste goals that it continues to roll out, despite pushback from residents (3). I believe that such initiatives will have a multi-order effect over time. Not only have people become accustomed to not relying on plastic bags today, but they are to an extent shopping for smaller quantities of food more often – and thereby hopefully wasting less. This does not happen overnight and likely perfectly, but the only thing that is certain about the picture is that not making serious changes doesn’t make it better.

What really gets me with this picture though, is on the personal level – as elicited in our discussion on Whole Foods Market. The problem is not in apples that travel across the continent – but in the fact that in addition to eating high carbon-footprint food, we as a population have been eating increasingly unhealthily. While there are certainly valid socioeconomic reasons that affect access to quality food that affect this phenomenon, fact of the matter is, a lot of us do have the ability to actively decide how we eat, and we really should.

Certainly not helping the cause is the plethora of food fads and made up gluten allergies (4) that make it difficult to discern what defines healthy, and which rules to keep track of to stay green. Ultimately, I believe that just logic and attention to what you choose to put in your own body are much better ways to make decisions than the categorical rule of the month.

My favourite, and only rule to understand this comes from a book that captures multiple aspects of the impact a plate of food has on the world and on you – all without laying out any contrived rules, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: “Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.”

(1) http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/02/27/283071610/u-s-lets-141-trillion-calories-of-food-go-to-waste-each-year

(2) http://locicontrols.com/pilot-testing/

(3) http://www.sfenvironment.org/zero-waste/overview/zero-waste-faq

(4) http://sploid.gizmodo.com/being-gluten-free-is-dumb-because-gluten-insensitivity-1577178094

(5) http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/science-compared-every-diet-and-the-winner-is-real-food/284595/

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About macomberjohnd

HBS Finance faculty interested in sustainability in the built environment including devices, structures, townships, and cities.

3 Responses to “In Defense of Food Policy”

  1. By John Macomber

    From an impact point of view, do you think that “personal choice” type decisions like this are easier to influence at scale, since we can make our own choices person by person…or harder to influence at scale…for the same reason?

  2. I think it depends — it’s relatively easy to force certain behaviours by pricing for implications, but harder to justify with others.

    For instance, it’s easy to get me to sort my recycling by ticketing me / not picking up unsorted trash like Somerville does, but harder for me to argue price discrimination to force better eating given all the other variables that play into access and price of food in different neighbourhoods.

  3. One thing that is not talked about our current food production methods is the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use. Microbes present in the soil convert anywhere between 1-5% of the fertilizer used into Nitrous Oxide (1). Nitrous oxide is the third most potent greenhouse gas after CO2 and CH4, and N2O levels and fertilizer use has been increasing all across the globe (2, 3). Unfortunately, the cheap natural gas, fertilizer subsidies and productivity demands will only drive up the demand for fertilizers.

    A solution to this problem, lies in a multi-faceted approach
    a. Personal choice to eat in a less carbon intensive way, vegetarian and season driven diet.
    b. Gov’t regulation to support/increase organic farming (and it’s productivity) and to curb fertilizer use and subsidies.
    c. Greater innovation by companies and academic institutions in increasing farm productivity while reducing fertilizer use, like micro irrigation systems for rice and lower water/fertilizer use seed variants.

    1: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/fertilizer-produces-far-more-greenhouse-gas-expected
    2: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/04/02/fertilizer-use-responsible-for-increase-in-nitrous-oxide-in-atmosphere/
    3: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.CON.FERT.ZS?order=wbapi_data_value_2012+wbapi_data_value+wbapi_data_value-last&sort=desc

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