Food, Technology, and Energy

By chromatic
January 6, 2009 | Comments: 5

It's January in Portland, and I just ate a fresh strawberry. Though the two little strawberry plants in my front yard put up with a foot of snow over the past few weeks, this strawberry came from a plastic box at a supermarket.

Per Country of Origin Labeling, the carton says that this strawberry came from California. (COOL's guidelines suggest that raw strawberries are not "processed food items", which would make them except. These strawberries have not gone through a process which changes the character of the fruit. Dipping the strawberries in chocolate would, as would drying them. Curious!)

Why does this matter?

I bought bell peppers and bananas and apples and oranges and a cucumber at the grocery store this week. The prices were very good -- especially considering that some of that food likely came from other continents in other hemispheres. What makes it possible to get green bananas in the middle of winter in Oregon from South America, so I can eat them instead of peaches I canned myself in October? (I didn't really can peaches, but if I couldn't get fresh bananas in January, I might have!) Technology improvements in shipping, in harvesting, in preservation of semi-ripe fruit, and in artificial ripening all contribute.

I realized the other night that I don't know the true cost of that fruit. My question's not just about price per pound but energy cost and quality cost and opportunity cost.

I like strawberries, and I prefer a nice, barely-yellow banana to banana bread, but does $2.50 per pint and $0.38 per pound really reflect the cost of shipping fruit around the world? What about the impact of my food choices on the environment, or workers in other countries? What are the food quality and safety and inspection standards in the ultimate country of origin for this food? What are the effects of picking underdeveloped fruit and ripening it in a distribution center 50 miles away from my local grocery store? What happens when heavy snowstorms prevent refrigerated trucks from driving tons of semi-fresh produce between warehouses? What do the trailers and chains do to our shared infrastructure of highways and local streets? Would rail transportation be faster, or more efficient, or less polluting?

Labeling some foods with the country of origin only starts to answer some of these questions. It's not likely (nor do I even consider it desirable) for a government to enforce labeling to this detail on food producers and distributors -- and I'm not likely to do that much research for a single strawberry, even if I am snowed in on a blustery January day.

It would be nice to gather and collect this information, though. Perhaps that's one of the best possible purposes of collective intelligence: not to throw virtual sheep at ex-coworkers, nor to post gotcha videos of your neighbor's latest deck party, but to gather little pieces of important information into a meaningful whole. By myself, I can't measure the impact of my actions on the rest of the world. I'm sure millions of people know a little bit of part of the supply chain. If we just had a way to collect and present all of that information, we could make ourselves a little smarter and, perhaps, make the world a little bit better -- no government intervention with weird tarriffs and earmarks necessary.


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5 Comments

Henny Penny bull$hit

Is it safe to say we've been scammed yet?
The disappearing sea ice that was supposedly going to dramatically change the North, if not the world, is back.

Standardized shipping containers are probably the most significant innovation to have occurred in logistics ever. Once you standardize the shipping container, you can standardize shipping boxes that fit within those containers, and as a consequence it makes a great deal of sense to insure that you get as many things into those containers as possible in order to reduce the overall shipping costs.

The upshot of this is that shipping of expensive items subsidizes the shipping of bulk wholesale items such as those strawberries. Shipping just fruit alone would be cost prohibitive. Unfortunately, as the recession continues to take hold, the number of expensives items being shipped decreases, which means that over time, the cost of the fruit, vegetables, meat and other parts of the 3000 mile Caesar Salad climb, because while the cost per trip has not changed, the shippers are not making as much money on each trip.

Eventually, this also means that shipping becomes consolidated, resulting in fewer fresh goods reaching your table in winter, which also raises prices. Finally, fuel costs have to be factored into the equation, and while they have dropped as people dumped speculative fuel investments, they are already rising again dramatically.

Probably a good time to learn how to can those peaches after all.

I'm glad it's not just me that is wondering how it is my grapes can have more air-miles than I do. I've really been curious how it can actually be that much cheaper to fly something in from Chile to Washington state.
Yes, I'm sure the math all adds up and all, nevertheless it does seem somewhat absurd. On the other hand, someone I heard about was making a great deal of money shipping recyclable trash to China. Then shipping it back. *shrug* Again, I'm sure the math adds up, I just want to see it somewhere, from someone. Just once.

Supply chains are trade secrets.

As an advocate of only toxic-free and preservative-free food, I am with you in your quest to knowing the exact and clear labeling of food especially if the origin is not within reach (out-of-town). The cost of a true organic food, fruits, veggies including government fees varies from place of origin. Perhaps what we should seek is the truth in advertising (label) so we can get the most out of our money. Some points to ponder from hampers.

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