January 15, 2016

Veggies

Fresh, organic, and delivered by drone? Credit: Allen Sheffield / Flickr Creative Commons

You’re at the local farmers market, carrying your public radio tote bag, and stocking up jars of locally-sourced, cruelty-free honey. It’s a Portlandia moment. Your very presence is supporting a more sustainable world.

Right?

Well, according to Louise Fresco, author of Hamburgers in Paradise: The Stories Behind the Food We Eat, the reality is a bit more complicated.

Fresco understands our desire to eat the tomato grown just across the street, “but for most people in the world, that’s impossible. Because they live in cities with tens of millions of people, and their food comes from far away. And for them, especially when they’re poor, it is very important that food is produced at a decent price, at a scale that allows the food to be shipped to the cities. So the American dream to have your food from around the corner only applies to a few parts of the world, and only for a few products.”

In a growing, rapidly urbanizing world, small farms just can't feed billions of hungry mouths.

Instead, Fresco believes, we’ve got to make industrialized agriculture more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and morally acceptable.

She’s quick to cite overuse of chemicals and poor labor conditions as problems that larger farms have to overcome. And she agrees that being able to buy oranges in Chicago in January has its downsides. (Though she wouldn’t want to stop international produce shipping entirely, noting that the economic benefits to less developed nations can be considerable.)

But Fresco believes that these are issues that industrialized agriculture can improve on - issues that industrialized agriculture will have to improve on, because agribusiness is really the only way to make sure billions of people don’t starve to death.

Does that mean sacrificing taste, since many people believe locally-grown food tastes better?

Not necessarily. Many of the reasons that we like certain foods are tied up in context (as we've previously explored in our interview with Don Katz), says Fresco. She argues that some of our preference for local is perception, not reality.

And ultimately, she says, farmers markets won’t go away. They’ll just be a tiny piece of our nutritional future.

What will that future look like? Increasingly, we’ll likely see a centralized place outside of cities where food will come in, and then there will be complex distribution systems, perhaps involving drones for drop-off. The middle class may become more interested in growing their own food, with waves of balcony gardens popping up in urban areas, helped along by new agricultural techniques and technologies.

Overall, “it will be a diverse system, I don’t think there is one solution for everything. But what is very clear is that a declining rural population will need to feed a vastly increasing urban population. So labor use and efficiency will be the key word of the future.”

Funding for Innovation Hub's environmental and sustainability reporting is provided by The Kendeda Fund: furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.

Louise Fresco, food, sustainability, Sci and Tech

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