Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Monday, December 11, 2006

"Fair Trade, Organic and Locally Grown Food May Destroy the Planet": The Economist

The Economist has an interesting article this month (subscribers only) about how noble-minded people, wanting to improve the state of the world's environment, may actually be doing the opposite. I don't fully agree with their argument but it is a point of view worth reading:

Organic Farming Will Destroy the Rainforests

"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."

Overall, Fair Trade Hurts Poor Farmers

"The standard economic argument against Fair Trade 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. Paying a guaranteed Fair Trade premium -- in effect, a subsidy -- both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fair Trade coffee even further, making non-Fair Trade farmers poorer. Fair Trade does not address the basic problem ... which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production."

They say Fair Trade is also inefficient at getting money to poor producers: "Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fair Trade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on ... only 10% of the premium paid for Fair Trade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fair Trade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more."

"Buying Locally" Wastes More Energy Than "Buying Globally"

"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. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicles miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles."

The problem with their argument is the "either-or" dilemma: in reality, the choice is not organic or conventional, fair trade, or unfair. I'm not necessarily for conventional agriculture over organic, but if safe, natural products can outperform chemical ones, our food will be better and safer and may help the environment in the process. The formula doesn't mean switching farmers to organic all at once -- or ever, for that -- but rather, selling them organic products that outperfom harmful conventional ones. That's the only way this thing is going to work.

Anyway, I won't waste your time with any more of my trite insight. Decide for yourself.
The either/or is pretty pathetic. Back in the old days before distribution became so modern we had these things called "regional cuisine" or "seasonal cuisine" that reflected what was generally locally available. Salmon wasn't found in every midwestern supermarket and you didn't eat tomatoes every day in wintry England. It was limited yes and I certainly have grown used to unlimited availability of most things in and out of season, but that doesn't mean it's the way it ought to be.
Ahh, The Economist...mouthpiece for globalization. There are so many inaccuracies in this article I don't even know where to start. The either/or paradigm isn't even the worst part. I'm in the middle of finals so I've got my plate full right now, but I'll be back to point them out later...I just wanted to chime in. Love the blog Lonnie.
Cuff and Apollo,

The Economist's strongest argument is that organic farming requires more land. Actually, that's not a very controversial analysis and is widely recognized as a problem. More research (and sales, on my part!) needs to be done to get naturally-occuring products to market to make organic farming more productive and competitive with conventional.

What people don't understand about organic vs conventional is that a plant does not care what type of nutrient it takes through its roots; it must have that nutrient in the correct ionic form regardless of whether a microbe put it in that form from compost or from a chemical source. Chemical fertilizer likely does not affect people who eat the veggies, but the nitrogen and phosporus tend to be very mobile and run off into the Chesapeake or other waterway causing a host of problems; however, most ot the P that runs off is from an organic source: manure! As for pesticides and herbicides, that's a much more complicated story.

The assumption that local food requires more fossil fuels burned and is more inefficient to get to market is a weak argument. The article quotes ONE recent study done in Britain that says that that may be the case. No other studies are cited.

The Fair Trade argument is also in the realm of lofty economic theory and no hard data is provided. It's almost as if they've designed some elaborate algorithm to rationalize not paying farmers more money. It's pretty weak evidence.

Glad there are a few of my "readers" who care about this stuff!

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