In the earlier parts of this I discussed what I see as the problems with the book from an Australian perspective and my discussion of the issues they have with factory farming.
The later sections of the book concentrate on “conscientious omnivores”, essentially people who still eat meat but make a conscious effort to buy such things as “free range”, “organic” and “locally grown” produce. Then finally, veganism.
Firstly they discuss the fact that many of the labels that indicate humanely grown or similar produce are not probably what they expect. In some cases only very token efforts have been made to gain these labels. I didn’t find this unexpected. Whatever the system is people will be trying to game it for their own advantage.
On the other hand they visit a number of farms that do practice legitimate free range production, and as expected, the animals have happier lives. We’ll never really know how much happier but pretty clearly happier. In the low density flocks many of the practices that are routine for factory farms such as debeaking chickens and tail docking pigs are not necessary.
As the authors mention free range produce is considerably more expensive than the chicken and pork we’ve become accustomed to. Does this just make it a luxury good for the wealthy? The authors contend that if more people ate it the price would come down. To some extent I am sure this is true as the logistics etc became cheaper in volume, but ultimately if we are going to insist on very high standards of animal welfare its always going to be considerably more expensive than conventional produce. Conventional farming went from something similar to free range to the current systems to achieve the sorts of decline price effect they are talking about. While I don’t doubt some savings can be made at the farm level without compromising the animal welfare standards, its never going to get close to conventional factory farmed food.
While the authors come out in favour of free range production, they are less so on topics such as locally grown produce. As they point out, claims such as eating locally grown food decreases greenhouse emissions are not strong given that food that is transported by ship and rail are extremely efficient, and it takes only a few extra miles of travel by car for an extra trip to visit a local farm to outweigh the greenhouse emissions of bulk shipping something half way around the world. Similarly, unless you are prepared to eat extremely seasonal crops, then there is the possibility that the cost of growing crops out of season is greater than the shipping. They give the example of tomatoes grown in a local heated greenhouse in the northern USA emit much more CO2 than trucking the tomatoes up from Mexico.
Another rationale given for buying local is to support local farmers, but as is pointed out, why are first world farmers with welfare support more deserving of your support than poor third world farmers without any recourse to such assistance?
Fair trade, is another topic discussed which the authors are strongly in favour of it. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with Fair trade and its certainly well intended, I do wonder whether ultimately its doing much good. The foremost problem is that by paying more for a product you encourage to people to produce more of it, which ultimately floods the market and depresses the non fair trade price. While its fantastic to conduct trade I wonder if we would be better placed buying it at a market price and putting those extra cents into helping these people get their children educated so they can get work on some actual high value products where they can earn more on the open market. On the other hand part of the idea is to insist on minimum conditions for the labour that goes into making the product (no forced or child labour and union representation for instance ). This is a better basis, but I don’t know whether it really helps more broadly than just those people taking part. Additionally more of the money will be taken up in the regulation and still if it results in higher income will still result in more people wanting to grow coffee.
Thus I’m not sure whether it is an effective way of delivering essentially welfare. In all likelihood its much better than some of the top down government programs but is it better than just using the money to supply a village with clean drinking water? I don’t know.