Food and Climate Change: Part 1

The author attended a two-part lecture series on Food and Climate Change hosted by the Sustainable Food Initiative at Brown University. This is the first of two posts recapping the main points and providing analysis of the lectures.

Cooks Diet For A Dead Planet

Cover of Diet for A Dead Planet

Christopher Cook, journalist and author, gave the first in this two-part series. He called his “Just Food Nation”. Cook, who penned the book Diet For a Dead Planet, asserted that we need “radical change” to our food system.

In addition to the growing climate crisis, Cook also linked problems such as the recent food crisis and the American obesity epidemic to a fundamentally broken food system.

Mr. Cook asserted that currently, our food supply “rests precariously on cheap oil and cheap labor”. He explained that monocropping, erosion, dependency on fertilizer and pesticides, and heavy use of transportation are all part of why his sources show 100 billion gallons of petroleum being used for food every year. The solution, one preached throughout the event, is a renewed commitment to small, local  farms.

Cook emphasized that his interest in small farms had nothing to  sentimentality or preserving a dated institution that only has a place in “postcard photos”. Indeed, most thinking in developmental economics seems to support this. What large farms gain in economies of scale is out weighed in principal-agent problems, and a lack of information and intuition that comes from being more intimately acquainted with the land. As Mr. Cook explained the disappearance of these farmers marks the “death of a whole industry of experts”.

If these small farms are more efficient, then one might wonder why they are dying out. In developing economies, imperfections in the credit and insurance market make it hard for smaller farms to buy up land. In the developed world, there is something Mr. Cook dubs “corporate socialism”. He explains that the farm subsidies drive the consolidation and the “obsesssion with corn” that plague our food system.  Couple this are the extraordinarily unsafe working conditions that migrant agricultural workers are exposed to and the uninternalized externalities that accrue to society, and large factory farms have a clear, unfair advantage.

So often, defenders of the status quo food production and distribution system will claim that people who call for government to force the internalization of externalities or to promote more sustainable food practices (like small, local farms) are advocating socialism or excessive government intervention. The common argument is that McDonald’s ability to provide hamburgers for less than a dollar each is proof that the system as it is works. Voters and consumers must realize that hamburger is subsidized. It is not only subsidized by the artificially cheap grain that feeds the cattle at tax-payer expense, but also subsidized by future tax-payers who will have to clean up the environmental disasters being created by factory-style feedlots and unsustainably farming practices more generally. In all likelihood few people, even those aware of the flaws of current farm subsidies, think of McDonalds as being subsidized by tax dollars, but that is the reality.

Some hardline free marketeers might have found themselves made squeamish by Mr. Cook’s language: he decried the “commodification of food”, he found fault with some contemporary free trade agreeements, and he alluded very briefly to more taxation. The truth however, is that Cook’s overall message was very practical. When I asked him about the potential advantages of free trade, Mr. Cook explained that he is against trade agreements that do not truly create free trade but allow one country’s subsidized goods to flood the other. He also discouraged excessive reliance on the global transportation system, but his position was by no means anti-trade. As far as taxation, he showed that there was plenty of money already being poured into the failing system that could merely be redirected, so it is unlikely that there would be much need for further taxes.

Christopher Cook washed down his negative comments with some hope by outlining what he dubbed a “New Deal for Food”. From the lecture, one takes away that we must make companies bear the costs of the externalities their processes and transactions create (though he did not use these terms). We must faze out the broken farm subsidy system, and redirect at least a portion of that money to a creating responsible farming, and a “new food infrastructure” through which these sustainable, fresh products can reach consumers even those in inner cities which now have to rely on fast food and convenience stores. He suggested accompanying this with nutritional education to make consumers aware of the health benefits of fruit and vegetables. Mr. Cook also advocated for a much smaller role for meat in the human diet, not just because of the huge environmental footprint of meat but also because of the detrimental effects of a high cholesterol diet. He called for people worldwide to return to perceiving meat as a luxury item, a dietary rarity and to curtail its consumption to the point where large, over-stuffed feed lots can be (largely) replaced with local, grass-feed meat. All told, Christopher Cook’s lecture was a look at the full-breadth of the problems of the food system, and he ably argued for real and immediate change.

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