Friday August 29, 2014

Food Fight: Al Mussell - Want to save the planet? Skip the farmer's market!

Large-scale, intensive agriculture is often portrayed as the opposite to the production methods used by producers who sell at farmers markets. (HERIBERT PROEPPER/AP)

Large-scale, intensive agriculture is often portrayed as the opposite to the production methods used by producers who sell at farmers markets. (HERIBERT PROEPPER/AP)

If you've been to a farmer's market lately, you've probably heard all about the virtues of buying from smaller, local farmers: it's fresher, it's better for you, it's somehow "closer to the land."

We pay big bucks to buy from small scale producers who don't fully embrace modern industrial methods, and offer city dwellers a more sustainable model of agriculture.

But according to agricultural economist Al Mussell, small is not beautiful when it comes to food production.

In this instalment of our Food Fight series, he tells our host Jim Brown that intensive, industrial agriculture makes better use of existing farmland than other methods.

Mussell, who is a senior research associate at the George Morris Centre, estimates that by 2050 global food production rates will need to increase by 70 to 100 percent.

Related Links

The George Morris Centre
Study on the carbon footprint of imported or domestic livestock agriculture
UNBC study explores the economic and social benefits of farmers markets

'We could just go around whacking rain forest and boreal forest bringing new land into production from pristine condition. Or we could use the land base we already have in production more intensively.' - Agriculture economist Al Mussell

He argues, however, that using the right methods, farmers won't need to expand their land use by that much to produce all that food for the market.

Mussell says in this way, intensive agriculture can also be sustainable agriculture if it's done right.

And he's got a warning for consumers who are buying into emotional arguments about their food supply: be careful with your assumptions.

The so-called "locavore" movement encourages people to eat foods produced within 100 miles of their home.

The idea is that by eating more locally, there will be a smaller carbon environmental footprint.

But Mussell says that's not always the case.

farmers-market

At farm markets like this one you can buy directly from the producer. (Steven Senne/AP)

 He argues the vast majority of the carbon footprint in agriculture happens before the food has even been shipped.

As you'll hear in his interview, he cites a study that showed U.K. consumers would contribute less to carbon output by purchasing New Zealand lamb compared to local meat.

That's because the New Zealand lamb is raised with less carbon intensive methods.

So what would he have you do? Well, if you enjoy the atmosphere of your local farmer's market, and the sense of community, then don't stop.

Mussell says consumers have the right to choose where they get their food based on their conscience, but he warns against legislation or regulation to limit intensive farming practices.