The Economist on the Politics of Food


We cover the Economist for TreeHugger, and have taken our time writing about a significant article called "Voting with your trolley" because we couldn't quite decide if it was their usual intelligent discourse or an exercise in sophistry. They suggest that we are choosing our food as a means of expressing political opinion- say, concern for the environment or support for poor farmers. Quoting Marion Nestle: "What I hear as I talk to people is this phenomenal sense of despair about their inability to do anything about climate change, or the disparity between rich and poor," she says. "But when they go into a grocery store they can do something—they can make decisions about what they are buying and send a very clear message." So we dutifully buy organic, fair trade and local food to change the world. Or do we? Organics

The article states that there is no evidence that organic food is healthier or that conventionally grown food is harmful (and a lot of people would argue with that) and go on to discuss the environmental arguments against organic, suggesting that it has lower yields, takes more energy and is harder on the soil. Michael Pollan had much to say about the problems with organic food in the Omnivore's Dilemma, and they are real, but to say that "Producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. is contradicted by many. via GNN
Fair Trade
Who could object to fair trade? Economists, for a start. The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Oh please. Coffee is overproduced by the plantations producing low-end stuff in huge quanitities; Fair trade helps small farmers and co-ops providing primarily higher end shade-grown organic coffee.

But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

This is, unfortunately, probably true. But do we complain about fair trade or go after the vendors who are gouging us?

Local Food

Obviously it makes sense to choose a product that has been grown locally over an identical product shipped in from afar. But such direct comparisons are rare. And it turns out that the apparently straightforward approach of minimising the "food miles" associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.

Here they just miss the point entirely. They call the local food movement disguised protectionism and antiglobalization, letting "farming lobbies campaign against imports under the guise of environmentalism." they continue "It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain." Well no, the point of the local food movement is to buy neither, but to eat tomatoes when they are in season and adjust our menus to take advantage of the variations in food throughout the year and having a more diverse diet.

Like so many articles in the Economist, this one gets you thinking, reading, looking at other sources and learning. After doing all that we conclude that it is indeed sophistry.

Read ::The Economist , post and comments in ::Grist ::GNN ::Andrew Leonard and of course, The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Way we Eat