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There's food for thought, but facts are ignored

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This Canadian entry is one of several recent books to shine a light on the myriad problems related to food production, distribution and consumption.

To be sure, there are a lot of problems: environmental consequences of land and input use, volatile (and low) income for producers in developing countries, and obesity are a just a few. Many of these problems have received renewed attention in recent years following periods of high food prices.

Increased public awareness of and development of public policies to address these problems is important, and Consumed surveys many of the most prominent ones from the perspectives of producers and activists around the world.

Toronto author Sarah Elton first tackled the subject in her 2010 book Locavore. In Consumed, her first-person stories are interesting, but the use of anecdotes to promote fundamental changes to the production, marketing and consumption of food is unsatisfying at best, and misleading at worst.

These issues are very difficult to analyze, understand and solve, and Consumed presents a lot of incomplete, simplified and often wrong information as justifications for changing the course of consumer behaviour and public policies.

Elton's claim that "genetic modification (of agricultural seeds) has not done much more than enrich the seed companies" is so wildly inaccurate that it's hard to know where to start correcting it.

There are reams of rigorous, peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate significant benefits to producers and consumers of some GM technologies. And these benefits have been shown to extend across the income and farm-size spectrums, with the most significant benefits accruing to the poorest, smallest-scale producers in some cases.

Another important example is Elton's claim that "a consensus has emerged linking 2008's surge in food prices directly to the global financial system." Simply stated, there is no such consensus; the majority of recent rigorous research on this topic finds that increased speculative activity in commodity markets did not have significant effects on rising food prices in 2008.

Everybody loves a scapegoat, and financial traders on Bay Street are easy targets. But the best available evidence suggests that policies to restrict speculation would do little to address the underlying causes of higher food prices. The real solutions are much more complicated.

Elton also states, "It is clear that local ... food systems are an economic boon." Well, it's really not so clear. Higher food prices that would result from local production are not a "boon" for anybody except those getting paid the high prices; they are certainly not a boon for cash-strapped publicly funded schools or low-income households.

It is also worth noting that farm household income in Canada and the U.S. is already higher than non-farm household income (despite Elton's claim that "farmers everywhere are the poorest segment of the population").

The "positive environmental" effects of local food systems are also not so clear because most of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food occur at the production stage, not the transportation stage. Prudent public policy would target the primary cause of the problem (i.e. putting a price on carbon), not production location.

Also, local systems are vulnerable to weather shocks and incidents of violence that wipe out local production. Regions, and in some cases entire countries, can struggle to source food supplies in periods of local crop failures if they don't have well-developed trading infrastructures (transportation, storage and traders). This is one of the key obstacles faced by food-aid practitioners in developing countries during food emergencies.

The criticism of this book is not a derision of the choice to produce and consume local, organic or slow food. People who prefer, and can afford, these options should be free to pursue them. And there is wide consensus among policy analysts that current agricultural and food polices are in dire need of reform in many areas.

However, Elton's selective use of anecdotes and stories often misrepresents the best available evidence on many issues.

Ryan Cardwell is an associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 G8

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