Friday, April 10, 2015

Depolarizing the Supermarket: Taking Responsibility (and Feeling Good about Yourself) on a Sliding Scale

by Maayan Kreitzman

This blog originally appeared on the UBC blog site for the course Global Food Security and Sustainability taught by Dr. Navin Ramankutty

It's a familiar scene: I stand in front of the garlic at the supermarket, motionless, my mind a complete blank: organic garlic, 17.50/pound, “normal” garlic, 9.00/pound. I have about as much agency in the situation as the pile of bulbs staring me back – it seems like my choice is totally random, depending on how generous or maybe how guilty I'm feeling that day. Actually, I know a lot about garlic. I've grown it in two different countries, in three gardens and two farms; I've picked garlic scapes, I know what the flowers smell like (garlic, actually). I know how a bulb looks when it's fresh, and how to braid the leaves and hang them so that they cure properly. I put garlic in just about everything I cook, as well as raw in salads. But this wealth of garlic-love still leaves me empty when confronted with those two price signs. If I choose the organic, have I chosen something more wholesome, more likely to be local, grown by a farmer I would be happy to support, who is a good steward of wildlife and minimized pollution on her farm? If I choose the conventional garlic, will it be laced with unregulated chemicals that apparently run rampant in the far east? Was it grown by a sinister multinational agribusiness corporation that uses energy-intensive farming practices that pollute and destroy biodiversity?

These are the natural associations conjured up. Yet I now know that many of these dichotomies are false ones. That organic farming doesn't necessarily imply sustainability, that for greenhouse gas emissions, the way food is produced usually trumps the distance it travels to market, that chemical-free food isn't more nutritious, and that intensive farming can use less land, sparing other land for nature. The many trade-offs I've learned about engage and fascinate me, yet at the supermarket, I'm still faced with one choice (or at most two): organic or conventional. China or California. Only two tradeoffs in a matrix of other factors.

So I would need more data. I would need someone to reliably report on the social-climate-ecosystem impacts of food production (or any production for that matter). I'm not talking about yet another do-gooder certification scheme which appeals to a niche market and justifies premium pricing. So what am I talking about?

It's an information-supply scheme. An across-the-board mechanism for scoring products from regions on a sliding scale with a full range of values. These scores would then be summed up into a single social-climate-ecosystem impact score, to be displayed on the sign above the bin. This score would apply to organic and conventional products alike. The advantage of information-supply is that it does not imply a separation of physical supply chains and thus higher prices, as certification would. In fact it can be seen as a market integrator or leveler: regardless of which niche a product belongs in, it would be subject to the same evaluation. In this way, blanket decisions like “organic is better” would be unnecessary – we could make mixed choices based on our priorities.

Of course, this doesn't come free, or easy. First, while engineers and food systems scholars have made strides in estimating greenhouse gas emissions from the full life-cycle of food products, these studies are time consuming, very specific, and typically do not include ecosystem impacts or social dimensions of production. We need faster, better estimation methods that include all three of these axes.

Second, gathering data costs money. For some reason, active monitoring is not something we associate with the agricultural sector – yet in other industries (fishing, finance, airlines, government) independent observers/auditors/safety inspectors are an accepted part of doing business. Transparency requires both expertise and money. I would argue it's worth it.

My assertion that “it's worth it”, of course, assumes that consumer-choice driven changes are the path towards change. Some might argue that using the data to tax producers for their impacts is more efficient; others would favor command-and-control style regulations that mandate stricter management practices and limits. Maybe those measures can yet come about. But in a political climate which is inimical to taxes and suspicious of direct regulation and enforcement, the consumer approach is the best place to start.

This scheme allows people to act in accordance with their existing goodwill and sense of responsibility. A simple act which is connected to real wants and specific values is not to be underestimated – it stands out from the arbitrary choices that result from pervasive cognitive dissonance. Such acts are the seeds of cultural change that may eventually grow into more formal avenues of decision making in our society. Right now, all of my time in the garden and on farms, all the courses I've taken in university, and all the articles I've read on Grist, all the petitions I've signed on SumOfUs, and all the farmer's markets I've frequented, still sum up to a blank stare into the abyss of the garlic display every month or two. That should change.

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