In some circles, one phrase has come to dominate modern cuisine: “farm to table,” a simple idea denoting an apparently straightforward process. Food springs up from the land and into your mouth. Meals are nourishment, not products—and certainly not processed, packaged, shipped, and marketed ones.
But food is never just sustenance. Whether you grew it in your backyard or farmers in Ukraine did—whether it is organic, GMO, made in a lab, or factory farmed—plants and animals become food through a complicated web of values, logistics, labor, markets, and technologies. If we take those out of the equation, we misunderstand what we eat, why we eat it, and what the real environmental costs are.
The “Produce Problems” issue explores that web. It starts in the backyard: Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel’s. In “Plants Everlasting,” she shows how growing your own garden can even be ripe with dilemmas: pursue supposedly sound permaculture with perennials and end up with basically nothing you want to eat, or plant annuals and then prepare to arm yourself with pesticides.
If you do opt for pesticides, you certainly won’t win any organic certifications. But maybe that doesn’t matter, write authors Linus Blomqvist, Breakthrough’s Dan Blaustein-Rejto, and Dave Douglas in “Measuring What Matters.” Such labels measure practices rather than outcomes and, in doing so, miss the metrics that matter most. What’s more, they create opportunities for fraud, points out Breakthrough’s Alex Smith. To consumers, an avocado looks like an avocado no matter how it is farmed. But call it organic, and you can charge twice as much. Not surprisingly, hucksters have caught on, Smith writes in “Fraudulent Foods.”
You may also be paying a premium for alternative meat, not only for its environmental benefits but also in hope that its production is better for workers. In that respect, reports journalist Jenny Splitter in “Out of The Jungle,” it can be a tool for a just environmental transition for animals and people alike. But it is no silver bullet. Meanwhile, alternative proteins, points out Harvard’s Robert Paarlberg in “It’s What’s for Dinner,” won’t replace animal meat any time soon. Until then, there’s plenty we can do to make livestock lives better. Almost none of it involves the kinds of things many environmentalists imagine.
Complications to the farm-to-table story don’t stop once produce moves off the farm or feedlot. Politics, geopolitics, and trade systems also matter. In “Food Has a Shipping Problem,” AEI’s Elisabeth Braw writes about the logistical problems stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine. And Breakthrough’s Saloni Shah walks through the cascading disaster that has followed Sri Lanka’s decision to ban chemical fertilizers, which comes just as many states in India are attempting to do something similar. Both cases, she argues in “The High Costs of Organic Farming,” reveal that such practices are no blueprint for pulling smallholder farmers out of poverty—or for making food systems more sustainable.
“Produce Problems” closes by turning back to the small scale. In “Matsutake’s Journeys,” Professor Michael Hathaway shows what the history of the humble matsutake mushroom reveals about diet, trade, nation-building, war, and planetary ecology.
The arguments collected in this feature paint a picture of food that is at once more complicated and more hopeful than most discussions allow. We get a lot of things wrong, especially around questions of sustainability—and correcting those mistakes matters. It is hard to see a path to carbon neutrality that doesn’t cut through our ideas about labels, about organics, alternative proteins, and more.
But “Produce Problems” is also hopeful. The authors in this issue uncover many problems, yes, but they also offer ideas for getting things just a little more right. Those changes will add up. Quietly, they will take us closer to a future that is better for the planet, better for people, and better for human flourishing.