Kalamazoo College's Student Newspaper
By Philip Mulder, Staff Writer
With Sodexo’s contract up for renewal, food has become the talk of the campus. It seems to me that opinions on food service fall roughly into two categories: more local and organic food, and I don’t care. For those in Group One, the thinking is that local food not only tastes better, but also is better for Earth and society.
While reading An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies by prolific author and economist Tyler Cowen, I learned a third perspective. Most of Cowen’s book relays practical and interesting rules for finding good ethnic food and eating abroad. But the part of Cowen’s book that applies to K’s current food debate is his chapter on eating green.
Cowen does not believe that local foods are necessarily better for the environment. By growing food where it can be grown most efficiently and then shipping it, farmers cut down on land and pesticide use, compared to growing those same crops locally but in a less efficient manner. Even though shipping uses some energy, large shipments of food can still have lower per-capita energy costs than local alternatives. Transportation only accounts for about 14% of the energy in food production, meaning any additional costs are dwarfed by energy gains from growing food more efficiently. Cowen believes that the agro-industrial complex is not necessarily evil, but a tool that can be used for bad or good.
One of the cons of the agricultural industry, admits Cowen, is its bland flavors. Long supply chains and excessive food safety regulations takes away the flavor, variety, and daring qualities that Cowen loves so much in ethnic food. Part of Cowen’s mantra for finding good food is to look for where the supplies are fresh. Local food is more carefully produced, not frozen for long periods of time, and has more individualized flair than mass-produced equivalents.
As for fixing the environment, Cowen thinks the best way to go is supporting forests, reducing suburban sprawl, eliminating agricultural subsidies, setting standards for humane treatment of animals, and phasing out water subsidies to reduce excess water consumption. The “bazooka” for fixing global warming, says Cowen, is a carbon tax that discourages greenhouse gas emissions and encourages the production of cleaner technologies.
One may not agree with everything Cowen writes, but his book is definitely worth a read. Considering his third perspective in K’s food debates could help us examine our ideas more carefully. Local food may taste better, but will it help the environment? Whatever benefits local food has, are they worth the extra cost? As we reform the food system at K, these are issues we should address, not sweep under the rug.