Escaping our Food Paradoxes

Jérémie, Carbon Maps' cofounder and Head of Science, writes about the complexities and paradoxes of our food ideals and argues in favor of a pragmatic food realism.
Feb 29, 2024

This is the translated version of the French original first published in Le Point.

For us French, food is a difficult subject to tackle rationally and dispassionately. The word "arbitration" still has no resonance when it comes to everything to do with food. The French want food that is "all-in-one": abundant, local, resilient, healthy, regenerative, meaty and meat-free, cheap, remunerates farmers, respects animals and protects the environment, without GMOs, pesticides or glyphosate. However, in the face of global warming, inflation and dwindling resources, it's time to face up to our food contradictions with a realistic perspective.

Local versus Global

Let's take the example of eating local, which is a pronounced and positive consumer trend. However, advocating "100% local" food is not really tenable, for at least three reasons.

The first is that local production is not always the most sustainable. Growing local wheat or corn in unsuitable regions often has exorbitant environmental costs. Secondly, not everything can be local. The French-style breakfast, for example, has no chance of being local: coffee and chocolate alone account for thousands of kilometers of transport. Should we forgo these pleasures in favor of eating locally? The third reason is that relocating food production means agreeing to pay local producers a little more for their chicken or yogurt, for example, and not everyone can afford to do so.

Local food is therefore a fine idea, provided we are willing to make sometimes painful trade-offs. What are we prepared to sacrifice to develop and protect local agriculture? This is a question that should be debated, rather than simply reverting to "eating local" as a catch-all solution.

Free range vs. Cage

Animal welfare raises similar questions. From an ethical point of view, we all want to put an end to cage farming, and you only have to read CWIF's plea to understand the moral benefit we could derive from it. We want to eat happy chickens frolicking in the farmyard and pigs farrowing on comfortable bedding, but are we ready to accept all the consequences?

Cage farming, like all industrial practices, optimizes the economic and energy efficiency of the food produced. It therefore has the lowest costs of all farming methods, and emits 30% fewer greenhouse gases. Abolishing cage farming is therefore ethically necessary, but with impacts—positive and negative—that are not readily apparent to everyone. A direct consequence of this is the resurgence of caged eggs, as consumers faced with rising prices during this period of inflation opt for low-cost protein sources. This is despite the fact that the French egg industry has, for years, invested massively in removing its laying hens from their cages.

Meat vs. vegetarianism

A final example is vegetarianism, which advocates replacing animal proteins with plant proteins. In order to reduce the environmental footprint of our food, we aspire for a vegetarian agriculture that is not only abundant and healthy but also sustainable, aiming for the complete elimination of livestock farming by 2050. But the question remains, is this vision feasible?

Sadly, it is not. Because even if all French people switch to plant-based proteins tomorrow, which remains a real challenge, what then becomes of our vast meadows, which are naturally suited for grazing livestock? To preserve our landscapes and their biodiversity, and prevent these meadows from dying out, we'll have to put animals on them to graze. Despite opposition from those against livestock breeding, the most viable ecological approach entails finding a balance between animal and plant-based foods: decreasing livestock populations, reallocating them to pasturelands, and concurrently advancing agro-ecological plant cultivation while promoting the consumption of plant proteins.

This "balanced coexistence" approach is less appealing than the simple but radical idea of 100% plant-based, livestock-free agriculture, but it stands as a far more pragmatic and achievable approach, demanding deliberate decision-making. Introducing these considerations into the current discourse is imperative for genuine progress to be made.

Towards a new food realism

The ecological crisis requires us to radically rethink the way we produce, consume and collaborate within food systems, but to escape from our current paradoxes, this reinvention should be grounded in a concept of "food realism" rooted in science and tailored to the diverse realities of different territories. Such an approach would enable us to arbitrate across all stages of the value chain, empowering both consumers and producers to become pivotal agents of transformation. Effecting this change in our food systems demands extensive education, a willingness to compromise, and a humble acknowledgment of the challenges ahead. The time for action is now.

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