Ethical Food?

I was sitting in the ladies room on the 3rd floor of the Mechanical Engineering department when I caught sight of “The Economist” December 9th-15th 2006 issue which featured a report on “Why Ethical Food Harms the Planet”. Although I was running late for my lab, the notion that organic/fairtrade/local food was bad for the planet disturbed me greatly and so, I sat down on the couch and started devouring the page long report.

If you have the time, do read on.

Ethical Food. Good Food?

If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse.

“You don’t have to wait for government to move..the really fantastic thing about Fairtrade is that you can go shopping!” So said a representative of the Fairtrade movement in a British newspaper this year. Similarly Marion Nestle, a nurtionist at NYU, aruges that “when you choose organics, you are voting for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil and cleaner water supplies”

The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive. Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarkeet trolley instead. Elections occur relatively rarely, but you probably go shopping several times a month, providing yourself with lots of opportunities to express your opinions. If you are worried about the environment, you might buy organic food; if you want to help poor farmers, you can do your bit by buying Fairtrade products; or you can express a dislike of evil multinational companies and rampant globalisation by buying only local produce. And the best bit is that shopping, unlike voting, is fun; so you can do good and enjoy yourself at the same time.

Sadly, it is not that easy. There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about 3 of the most popular varieties of “ethical food”: organic food, Fairtrade food and local food. People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits: transforming the planet requires duller disciplines, like politics.

Buy organic, destroy the rainforest
Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. but it all depends what you mean by “environmentally friendly”. Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11 000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the “green revolution” of the 1960s, greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world’s current agricultureal output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rainforest.

Fair trade 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 comodities are low because of overproduction. By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these comoodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses the prices-thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiatiove is intended to do. And since only a small fraction of the mark-up on Fairtrade foods actually goes to the farmer-most goes to the retailer- the system gives rich consumers and inflated impression of their largesse and makes alleviating poverty seem too easy.

Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and by extention, carbon emissions, is clear? Surpringsly, it is not. A study of Britain’s food system found that nearly half of food vehicle miles 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 supermarket 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 NZ and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing Briticsh lamb, because farming in NZ is less energy-intensive. And the local-food movement’s aims, of course, contradict those of the airtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor country produce. But since the local food movement looks suspiciously like old fashioned protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment, helping poor countries is presumably not the point.

Appetite for change
The aims of much of the ethical food movement-to protect the environment, to encourage development and to redress the distortions in global trade-are admirable. The problems lie in the means, not the ends. No amount of Fairtrade coffee will eliminate poverty, and all the organic asparagus in the world will not save the planet. Some of the stuff sold under an ehitcal label may even leave the world in a worse state and its poor farmers poorer than they otherwise would be.

So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, als. 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 tarrifs 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 diffiicult, international, political deals that the world’ government have so far failed to do.

The best thing about 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 government are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage devlelopement. Which suggests that if politicians put these options on the polical menu, people might support them. The idea of changing the world by voting with your trolley may be beguilling. But if consumers really want to make a fidfference, it is at the ballot box that they need to vote.

To avid readers of this blog, you might have remember the proclaimation in the Nov 8th entry about Fairtrade products – “We shape the future by the products we choose to buy and the life we choose to live. The forces of economics complement our choices, not the other way round.” You could say I experienced a huge sense of defeat after reading the article, it is after all..The Economist. However, my firm belief in “ethical food” kicked in, and instead of succumbing to my guilibility, I went on a mad search for anti-arguments and boy was the result encouraging.[tt_news]=11&tx_ttnews[backPid]=104&cHash=ccfcb32023

So it seems that The Economist’s case was a really weak one. Whatever the case, Organic farming and Fairtrade products acceptance are definitely fighting uphill battles against current farming and trade policies. However, like global warming, it needs to start off somewhere before the whole slate can be wiped off clean. The problem now is that these revolutionizing techniques are co-existing with conventional/traditional methods of farming and of course, as history has always shown, a perturbance to what people consider as “normal” do not always go down well- even though normal may = bad. My stand now is that BOTH consumer power and voting would change the world, but thats of course assuming that we live in an ideal world.


2 thoughts on “Ethical Food?

  1. interesting article … although i’m woefully underqualified to make any kind of knowledgeable commentary. After my ASB trip last year, I became more aware of fairtrade products and local produce. nonetheless i remain skeptical about fairtrade produce… my curiosity is piqued sufficiently to do further research. good job!

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