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.