Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Food Politics: The Economist vs. Ethical Food Edition

The Economist has a major article this week on why "Ethical Food" may not deliver all that is promised. Definitely read the whole thing, but I'll summarize the key arguments:

1. Organic farming uses less fertilizers and pesticides, but uses more land because it is less efficient. This could lead to increased deforestation if adopted on a global scale. Organic farming also is more labor intensive, thus may not save very much energy overall. I'm not sure the question of which type of farming is least harmful can be answered scientifically, but it's interesting to think about the side-effects of seemingly well-intentioned food choices.

2. "Fairtrade" products offer a price-premium to certified producers, but the Economist argues that this merely perpetuates the problem of commodity overproduction through the Fairtrade subsidy. I've never sought out Fairtrade products, and am much closer to believing that "Free Trade is Fair Trade". But I do like the advocacy work of the Rainforest Alliance, which provides advice, credit, and marketing help to producers and workers, not permanent subsidy.

3. Local food isn't as great as it seems, particularly when it comes to "food miles", much as I wrote about earlier. The Economist tries to highlight a few cases where local food isn't as fresh and delicious as long-distance food, but the evidence is scant. I choose to eat local food because of its quality, but perhaps this is just a privilege of living in California.

I really like one of the conclusions of the article: "Local sourcing coupled with supermarkets' efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around." Whole Foods is trying to do this more and more. I've even heard that Sysco, the foodservice giant, might be able to use its inventory and distribution software to integrate very small producers into their supply chains. This is perhaps a food industry example of the Long Tail, and is certainly an instance where technology can be leveraged to good ends.

1 comment:

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