By Helen Metella
“I’m not against local foods, I’m against bad arguments for local foods,” said food economist Jayson Lusk during the recent Bentley Lecture in Sustainable Agriculture.
In his address to more than 200 ALES students, faculty, alumni, donors and members of the public, the Oklahoma Sate University Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed chair not only objected to the popular perception that locally grown food necessarily has more economic and health benefits than food that travels to our table from afar, but to several other widely held beliefs. Among them, that organic food is better for us, and that food grown with synthetic fertilizers is not.
These prevailing attitudes lead to poor public policies, said Lusk, such as mandating schools and hospitals to source only local food, or insisting that food producers identify GMO foods on their labels.
In fact, said the author of The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate, our current system of food production has vastly improved our lives.
In the past 40 to 50 years, we’ve doubled the amount of food we produce and we do it on less land. We now spend less than 10 per cent of our disposable income on food. Our life expectancies have increased in part because of our nutritious, diverse food supply. In social benefits, women spend 40 per cent less time preparing food now than they did in the 1940s.
Lusk urged his audience to put common fears about food in perspective.
Pesticides keep bugs off our food and let us produce more of it less expensively. Only 20 extra deaths annually in the U.S. are attributable to synthetic pesticides, he said, while pesticides produced naturally by plants are far more deadly. Regarding hormones, a typical hamburger contains three extra nanograms of estrogen, he said, whereas the equivalent serving of soya beans contains one million.
As for health claims supporting the consumption of more organic food, Lusk said that factory farmed foods that are flash-frozen are healthier than fresh produce in storage, which loses its nutrient value daily.
His vision of a bright future for agriculture is not the next generation “brooding about how to grow the best heirloom tomatoes” but rather thinking about how to improve agricultural biotechnology that has already given us a robust food supply and other benefits, such as synthetic insulin and malaria drugs.
Source University of Alberta