Ethical Eating

by F.

The Economist has a couple pieces this week on ethical eating:

The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive. Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarket 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’s not that easy. There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three 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.

For instance, organic foods may lead to greater deforestation:

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 agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn’t be much room left for the rainforest.

Is this just conservative propaganda? It appears not:

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.

More. And here is another article on the same topic, which goes into greater depth about many of the same points. I guess I won’t go to Whole Foods today after all. Those organic Fuji apples are suddenly less appealing.

What would really help the planet? A carbon tax, more free trade, and abolition of protectionist legislation:

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.