Thursday, December 14, 2006

Food Politics

The Economist has a couple of really interesting articles looking at organic, fair trade and buying local (free one, subscription one). Basically they question whether these really are better for the environment and workers. I summarize below but the whole articles are worth a read.

On organics:

But not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.
When I was able to get a hold of numbers, organic farming used on average 50% more land. If you like rainforests, think twice on organic foods.

On Fairtrade:
Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers' incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer. But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction. By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses prices—thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do.
There is also the issue that there is more Fairtrade coffee produced than purchased, so who determines who gets the higher prices? I like the concept of paying a nickel more for a cup of coffee in order to allow the workers to make a higher wage, but I am not sure it is that simple.

On buying local:
Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain's food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer's market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff.

What's more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive. And the local-food movement's aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce.
I wrote about the energy issue before in my Buy Local vs. Shop Local post and came to a similar conclusion. I also think that there is just as strong of a moral case for buying global than local.

So what is their conclusion?
So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, alas. Real change will require action by governments, in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe's monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market. Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers. Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world's governments have so far failed to do.

The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them.
While I agree that a carbon tax and freeing up the agricultural markets are good, I am not so sure that 'voting with your pocketbook' doesn't still make sense. It isn't the concept that is off, it is the implementation. Instead of organic, why not have an Acres and Gallons label, so you can take into account both land usage and energy usage? The issue is that the actual implementation of organic farming might not be the best for the environment, not that paying more for environmentally responsible foods doesn't work.

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