Up For Debate: Sustainable Food

May 7th, 2010 by Kathy McManus

One critic argues that food choices do little to help the planet — or others.

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The Responsibility Project

If you think you’re doing the right thing by making politically correct food choices, think again, says a provocative article posted at NPR.org from Foreign Policy magazine.

“Attention Whole Foods shoppers,” writes political science professor Robert Paarlberg, “Stop obsessing about arugula. Your ‘sustainable’ mantra—organic, local, and slow—is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions.”

Rural Africa has the same organic, local, and slow system, Paarlberg says, “and it doesn’t work.” He argues that food in much of Africa is “de facto organic” since few farmers use synthetic chemical fertilizer; it’s “local” due to high transportation costs; and it’s “painfully slow” in preparation. “The result is nothing to celebrate,” the professor says, creating a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

We’re “full of good intentions,” Paarlberg says. “We want to save the planet. Help local farmers. Fight climate change—and childhood obesity.” But the idea that changing our shopping and eating habits will help others has been “wildly oversold to Western consumers,” he says. Hence, his tough love/tough luck message: “If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West.”

Do you think Paarlberg has a point?