We are in the middle of another very hot spell here, but I’ve been keeping cool reading long reports in a darkened room … so you don’t have to.
Faced with increasingly difficult climatic conditions, growers of annual crops at least have the option of tweaking their systems year by year, trying new crops and new varieties. What is a wine-maker to do, when decades-old vines are beset by new pests and diseases and a perturbed growing environment? The problem is not new. A quick and dirty search suggests that real scientists in Europe have been concerned about it since at least the early 1990s. What about growers?
From Modern Farmer comes an article about a Spanish wine-maker who is going back to absolute basics in the search for better-adapted vines. Mireia Pujo-Busquets enrolled her family’s vineyard in a collaborative project with three other winemakers to select new grape varieties by crossing well-known cultivars of the region with one another and with more resistant varieties. They made about 300,000 crossings and sowed 5,000 seeds in greenhouses in Thailand, where heat and humidity challenged the seedlings. Those were winnowed down to 400 plants from each of which Pujol-Busquets made small quantities of wine. The search now is for those improved varieties that most closely resemble the older varieties they might replace, mostly to satisfy a perceived need among Catalonian growers to stick with the traditional varieties they have always used.
Modern Farmer points out that there are other efforts to adapt grape varieties to better cope with climate change in places like California and Tuscany. Maybe it is time for a new category in wine competitions, for climate-resilient wines. That would put them on the map.
While a few grape growers are trying to adapt to climate change, the industrial meat market is remarkably resistant. It would help to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions considerably if everybody in the richer world were to eat a lot less meat, one of the marketing points often made by purveyors of expensive, plant-based meat substitutes. You already know that I hold absolutely no brief for plant-based meat substitutes or, indeed, cellular meat, both of which seem to me to be shiny techno-fixes that don’t require people to make any great changes to their behaviour. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by a new paper from two Stanford University researchers, Public policies and vested interests preserve the animal farming status quo at the expense of animal product analogs.
The title is a bit of a mouthful, but it is an accurate summary. Simona Vallone and Eric Lambin took a detailed look at what they call the “incumbent sociotechnical regime” of animal farming in the US and the EU and how government support for animal farming and alternatives, along with lobbying efforts by both sectors, together have “mostly preserved the status quo of animal-based production and consumption”. Their paper, which is freely available, contains some fascinating comparisons. The EU spends more on real meat and dairy and pays more for it, “about US$0.7 more per unit of animal product”. But novel foods sell more in the US than in the EU, almost double for milk and dairy substitutes. More interesting is their Table 2, which lists the many different factors that, the authors say, might impact animal products and plant-based alternatives. The EU spends 1.5 times more on research and innovation for novel foods, and yet the US has granted far more patents. But spending on the incumbent system completely dwarfs spending on innovation, which gets only 3% of the pie. A lot of that research support goes to minimising the environmental impact of industrial animal farming, such as antibiotic resistance, managing manure and wastewater and reducing GHG emissions.
Support to farmers is another big difference. EU support is 2.7 times greater, relative to GDP, and is not related to the type of livestock or products. US support is conditional on the number and type of livestock. In both systems, government support probably makes farmers more risk averse and less likely to shift out of industrial animal production. The paper did not consider in detail support to consumers, which is much less likely to distort markets, but it does note that in the US more than 50% of government support goes to consumers through programs like SNAP, while in the EU almost nothing goes to consumers. Because consumer choice has such great potential for affecting food production, it would be good if support for consumers were accompanied by efforts to promote non-animal alternatives.
Advice to consumers is a federal matter in the US and a matter for individual member countries in the EU. The US does not have much to say about alternatives, the EU a little more, and only four countries explicitly link plant-based foods (not necessarily animal-product substitutes) to environmental benefits.
The paper contains a fascinating section on lobbying. American organisations spend 65% more than their EU counterparts, with dairy the top spender in both areas. Broadly, American lobbyists for industrial animal farming want to restrict the use of terms like “beef” and “milk” while in the EU they are most concerned with animal welfare in trade and feed-related issues. Lobbyists for novel foods want more funding for alternative meat research in the US, and improved animal welfare and food system sustainability in the EU.
Here is the authors’ final paragraph:
Despite the climate and biodiversity crises and the urgency to implement effective mitigation measures, both the EU and US governments are slow to act decisively to mitigate the environmentally damaging role played by the dominant animal production systems. They largely ignored the mitigation potential of niche technologies that provide viable alternatives. The lack of policies focused on reducing our reliance on animal-derived products and the lack of support to alternative technologies at a level sufficient to allow them to compete on the food market against a well-supported incumbent system are symptomatic of a sociotechnical system still resisting fundamental systemic changes. A significant shift in food policies would be required to allow these alternative technologies to realize their potential in contributing to a transition toward more sustainable food systems.
It is, of course, a cardinal sin to criticise something because it doesn’t do what you wanted it to do. The paper from Vallone and Lambin is a terrific resource, and although it focusses on fake meat and milk, rather than on what I would call true substitutes and alternatives, there is much in it of great value. As for the “significant shift in food policies” that the authors say is necessary, it just so happens I have another report up my sleeve.
Jess Fanzo, Professor of Climate and the Director of the Food for Humanity Initiative at Columbia University’s Climate School in New York City (and friend of Eat This Podcast) has just published a report — Building Stronger Food Systems in the Face of Global Shocks — for the Farm Journal Foundation. In it, she identifies six areas in which the US should increase investment, if it can wrest it from the hands of the incumbents, noting that such investments “generate benefits that would simultaneously help smallholder farm families around the world and American farmers and ranchers”.
Go read the executive summary on her website, which links through to the full report.
Another academic-ish paper, and this one is a gem. À propos EU subsidies to farmers, a group of researchers in Switzerland and Germany wanted to understand how culture affects the pro-environmental behaviour of farmers and how policies might interact with culture to affect that behaviour. They took advantage of a natural experiment rooted in Switzerland.
Swiss farmers share the same basic natural environment, economy and institutions, but some of them speak French while others speak German, and the two language groups “differ culturally in their norms and values”. Both cultures can obtain the Swiss subsidies for farmers to undertake nature conservation, which increased payments in 2014. So how did French- and German-speaking farmers respond to the subsidy scheme before and after the financial increase?
Before the increase, French-speaking farmers were less likely to take part in the subsidy program than German-speaking farmers: they received far less money per hectare, suggesting that they had enrolled less of their farms in the scheme and were less willing to do anything to improve conservation. After the increase, French-speaking farmers increased their activities that accrued subsidies to a much greater extent than the German-speaking farmers. The cultural effect is “far from trivial,” say the authors, and it “indicates that the increased monetary incentives attenuated the effect of culture on biodiversity conservation”.
There are complications, there always are, but the study points to some intriguing questions. Should environmental support policies within a multicultural society like Switzerland be tailored to specific cultural groups to take advantage of their norms and values? How about across the EU, where monolithic policies might not have equally desirable results in each member country?
An entertaining little piece in The Guardian explains how parmesan producers fight fakes with microtransponders . In their fruitless pursuit of perfect authenticity, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano is embedding chips in the rind of the fabled cheese. A special laser-equipped device reads the chip and supplies information about who produced the cheese, and that’s the bit that puzzles me.
I can understand why Consorzio members want the chip. The global market for the real deal was said to be US$2.7 billion in 2021, but fake parmesan is nipping at Parmigiano-Reggiano‘s heels, with a market estimated at US$2 billion. The embedded chip claims to offer huge benefits to producers but also, in every article I’ve read, to consumers, guaranteeing they they can be sure they are getting genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano rather than some cheap knock off. How does that work, then?
There is no consumer device for reading the chip. The vast majority of consumers do not buy their cheese carefully wedged off a huge wheel that they could check, if they had a device. Maybe retailers will take the opportunity to display the chip’s readout if asked, not least to justify higher prices. I suppose it could protect honest retailers from dishonest brokers, but if someone is going to all the trouble to counterfeit a genuine wheel, with cunning codes that “guarantee” authenticity already embedded in the rind, I suspect they’ll find a way to spoof the system.
It has been said — indeed I have said it myself — that nit-picking regulations like those that underpin Denomination of Protected Origin risk pickling a product in aspic at a moment in time that is not necessarily representative of the product’s history. In this case, I suppose laser beams and micro transponders mean that the Consorzio is looking firmly to the future, though the rules that govern making the cheese are unlikely to change any time soon.
I’m all in favour of protecting people from out and out fraud, but honestly, if you’re paying 99¢ or whatever for a tub of Parmesana, Parmabon, Real Parma, Parmezan or Parmezano, you ought to know you’re not getting the real thing. And you probably don’t care.