Posted by: beyonddinner | March 29, 2009

Food locavorism – an MIT Technology and Culture Forum

Last Thursday I stayed late at work and attended an MIT Technology and Culture Forum on Food Locavorism (watch this page for the audio file of the session to appear). There was a panel that featured three speakers and a moderator: David Pimentel from Cornell, Susanne Friedberg from Dartmouth, Steve Johnson from the Cambridge restaurant Rendezvous, and Steven Shapin from Harvard.

The room was packed and I found this very gratifying. Lately I’ve been enjoying the sense of community when I see how much interest there is in these topics. I also enjoyed the questions that were asked, though I have to say that the panelists didn’t really address most of the questions directly.

David Pimentel is the guy behind the statistics about how many miles our food travels to get to our plate (1500 miles on average). He was full of interesting numbers and spoke about a 22-year study comparing conventional farming methods with organic methods that showed yields just as strong with organic as conventional, with better drought performance and much less fossil fuel use. The decrease in fossil fuel was around 33% which made me wonder if they were studying industrial organic practices rather than “agroecological” methods where the practice is both organic and more sustainable (think Joel Salatin or Masanobu Fukuoka). In the study they also found that the soil had ended up with twice as much organic matter in it than when they started whereas in the conventional methods the soil was further depleted. I’m going to have to get the citation for that study.

Despite the interesting numbers he also mentioned a conclusion that I don’t believe is true – that the earth can’t sustain food production for a population of 6.7 billion. I just recently finished a book called World Hunger: Twelve Myths that debunks that myth pretty thoroughly. It’s really social and geopolitical reasons that cause world hunger – not the carrying capacity of the earth.

Susanne Friedberg made some interesting counter statements to the food locavorism mantra – talking about times when eating local may not be the best move. I had hoped that she would challenge the other speakers or the audience more, but that didn’t come to pass.

Through the event I’ve now learned of a few more authors to follow and my friend Sally told me of another book I should read called The End of Food. It’s nice to know that I’m becoming well read enough on these topics that  I’m able to judge for myself how much I believe from the different speakers.  Not so long ago I wouldn’t know who to believe!


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