Tag Archives: food

Globalization in a Pickle

This morning, a crisp and lovely morning in Washington, I hopped on my bicycle and pedaled over to a farmers’ market a mile from my home. My modest goal was to buy a quart of half-dills from Number One Brothers, who turn cucumbers into terrific pickles.

The stand was open for business, stocked with pickled beets, pickled kale, and cauliflower and carrots pickled with ginger. There was not a half-dill in sight. The woman in charge told me that the last cucumber pickles of the season were sold in mid-October. Number One Brothers won’t have any more until June.

As I pondered this annoyance on the way home, I realized that it’s yet more evidence of what the shipping container has wrought. I, like most people, have come to expect the food I want when I want it. I don’t see why the end of cucumber season in the mid-Atlantic states should give rise to a pickle shortage. Aren’t farmers somewhere in the world now harvesting fresh cucumbers that can be piled in a container, shipped my way, and dumped into brine?

The answer, of course, is yes. Pickles from some far-off place may not be quite as good as the Number One Brothers half-dills, but I don’t need to wait until June to get my pickle fix. Some pickle factory somewhere is making cucumber pickles right this minute, and the container brings those pickles to me at an extremely modest cost. While buying them at Costco may not be as virtuous as buying directly from the maker at a neighborhood market, Costco never runs out of pickles.

Strawberries in Winter

In our globalized world, many people hold firmly to the belief that local is better. That conviction is particularly strong when it comes to food. In Washington, where I live, farmers markets are crowded with shoppers (including myself) who are prepared to pay outrageous prices for a basket of apples or a pound of cheese if it originated at a nearby farm. We convince ourselves that what we eat is fresher, purer, or more environmentally virtuous because it was grown or manufactured on a family farm close by.

I recently had the chance to participate in an unusual radio program, produced by the BBC, that takes a look at the booming international trade in food. Called The Food Chain, the program asks why long-distance shipments of food are growing so quickly. Part of the answer, it will not surprise you to hear, is that low transport costs and high reliability make it feasible to import goods that would not be traded if freight rates were higher, a story I tell in my book The Box. But an even more important cause of increased trade in food, I suspect, is changed consumer preferences. We expect to eat the foods of our choice when we want to eat them, and if that means importing strawberries from Mexico or Chile when local berries are out of season, so be it.
Those of a certain age can remember when life was otherwise. In the town where I grew up, in the U.S. Midwest, having fish for dinner meant popping a box of frozen fish sticks in the oven. Fresh fish was something our supermarket simply did not carry, because it had no means of bringing it in. Now, the town boasts several sushi bars. Thank modern logistics, including refrigerated containers and air freight, for providing diners with an option that previously did not exist.

One current line of attack on such variety in our food supply is that long-distance shipments of food are “unsustainable.” By this, the critics usually are taking aim at the large amounts of greenhouse gases supposedly produced while transporting food internationally. Part of my contribution to the BBC program was to point out that “local” is not at all the same as “sustainable.” International trade in food often involves huge economies of scale, which means food produced on another continent may be transported far more efficiently than food produced nearby. Moving 40-foot containers of fruit great distances in a large containership can result in much lower emissions per ton than carrying smaller quantities a hundred miles in a diesel truck.
The BBC has taken an unusually sophisticated look at the food trade. I hope you’ll have a chance to listen.

In Defense of Industrial Food

The other night I watched Michael Pollan’s new documentary, In Defense of Food. I’m a great fan of Pollan’s 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is gorgeously written and extremely thoughtful. The documentary, I regret to report, is neither. On the contrary, it’s a scattershot attack on what Pollan refers to as “industrial food,” with far too much romantic nonsense about what a natural diet ought to be and far too little serious discussion of the challenges of feeding a populous, highly urbanized world. It’s an opportunity missed.

As I show in my book The Great A&P, an industrial food distribution system was a signal accomplishment of the twentieth century. Before it came along, most people’s diets were calorie-rich, nutrition-light, and boring. In the summer, sure, there were lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. In the winter, there were cabbage and potatoes and potatoes and cabbage. Protein mainly came from smoked or cured meats or from fish caught in polluted rivers. Lard was widely used in cooking and baking. Fresh milk, when it was available, was often unsafe to drink. It’s not as if people ate healthy.

This isn’t ancient history. Growing up in the Midwest, I never ate fresh fish, because the food industrial complex hadn’t yet figured out how to deliver it a thousand miles from the ocean. Frozen foods were a staggering success in the 1950s mainly because they offered consumers unprecedented variety at any time of year. Today we may look down our noses at frozen orange juice as inferior to “fresh” juice, but when it arrived in grocery stores around 1950 average families could obtain essential vitamins in the middle of winter. That was an enormous change for the better.

It should also be said—and Pollan doesn’t say it—that food used to be staggeringly expensive. As late as the 1930s, urban families in the United States routinely spent a third or more of their incomes on food, with much of that money going to keep inefficient wholesalers and retailers in business. Chains like The Great A&P in the 1920s and 1930s and Wal-Mart and Aldi more recently have made food consumers much better off by squeezing costs out of the distribution system. Much of this saving is achieved from economies of scale in production and distribution. Pollan, judging by the film, doesn’t much like economies of scale; he’d rather have us buying from farmers who are selling green beans they just picked by hand this morning. Nothing wrong with fresh-picked green beans, but there’s a trade-off that Pollan refuses to recognize. You can see it in the fact that those farmers’ market green beans cost three times as much as the green beans at Costco.

Pollan’s documentary muddles a lot of things. It’s absolutely true, as he shows, that manufacturers of processed foods make misleading claims about their products. There is no doubt that some processed foods are unsafe and that many of them are unhealthy. I agree with his attack on what he calls “nutritionism,” the idea that adding a drop of one or another nutrient to a food product magically makes it better for us to eat. But the industrial food system has brought us a lot of benefits along with Big Gulps, Twinkies, and gluten-free burritos fortified with antioxidants. Pretending otherwise is just pop nutritionism.