Southern delegates headed for next months Democratic National Convention can relax. They wont have to sneak contraband buckets of fried chicken into their hotel rooms after all.
Thanks to sloppy reporting, word got out that convention planners had imposed highly prescriptive rules on foods to be served at the Denver jamboree. Half of each plate must be fruits and vegetables. At least 70 percent must be organic or locally produced. And no fried foods.
Leave it to PC Democrats to bring their nanny state proclivities to dinner menus, critics charged. Wheres the beef? meat lovers demanded, giving new meaning to Walter Mondales 1984 campaign slogan.
But the feeding frenzy was a tempest in an herbal teapot. The media got it wrong. The catering guidelines are voluntary. Delegates will be free to live on greasebomb hamburgers if thats what they want.
But the belief that local and organic foods are always better for the environment bears closer examination.
Pick up the summer edition of Conservation magazine for a taste of how black-and-white assumptions about environmental stewardship sometimes collapse when muddy grey complexities intrude.
One article summarizes a startling study comparing the environmental impacts of organic and conventional milk. The study was included in a 2006 review sponsored by the UK governments Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
On a liter for liter basis, producing organic milk in England requires 36 percent less energy than conventional production methods. But, per liter, organic milk production generates nearly two-thirds more of the pollutants that cause eutrophication in lakes and rivers than conventional production. Liter for liter, organic dairies use 20 times as much land as conventional dairies and produce 16 percent more greenhouse gases.
A Carnegie-Mellon study quoted in the article concludes that how food is grown matters much more than how far it travels. Giving up red meat and dairy products one day per week will do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than eating locally grown foods for the whole week, according to the study.
Want to puncture more assumptions? The same edition of Conservation includes an article on a forest conservation puzzle in southern China. Turns out that the bamboo forest habitat inside a panda conservation reserve ended up more vulnerable to destruction than forests outside the reserve.
How could that be? It was the result of a chain of consequences that no one had considered when the reserve was established. The reserve attracted tourists. Tourists money transformed the economies of nearby villages. With more money, the villagers consumed more resources, including wood from forests inside the reserve.
Yet another article, playfully entitled "Confessions of an Entomological Hit Man, details the doubting questions that grew in the minds of invasive species experts hired to rid a small Hawaiian island of a noxious grasshopper species. Why whack the grasshopper and not the other invaders on the island? If the goal is to return the island to a previous ecological state, which previous state is the right one? And what about the needs of an endemic island bird that feasts on the grasshoppers?
The questions are as vexing as they are endless. Do we know enough about ecosystems to be able to manipulate them intelligently, even with the best of intentions? What could be the unintended consequences of a conservation policy? And what the hell can we eat without harming the environment?
So much nuance. Things are much simpler for ideologues on the left who presume to have all the answers about environmental ills, and for ideologues on the right who obtusely insist that such problems dont exist.
Simpler, but wrong. The environment is the basis of our existence. Keeping it healthy is essential. Our knowledge, however, is incomplete and our assumptions are often faulty. That makes the job hard, full of unexpected and, at times, unwelcome twists and turns. Cest la vie the job still needs doing.
Now, pass me some fried chicken.
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