Food politics

An interesting piece in The Economist discussing issues around, organic food, fair trade and ideas about embedded energy, or food miles. Some of these topics I’ve mentioned in earlier posts.

On the claim organic food is better for the environment:

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… The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

On fair trade coffee:

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. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade 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-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place…

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.

On the concepts of local foods:

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…

The DEFRA report, which analysed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. 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-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.)

To me the big problem with things like food miles is that its virtually impossible to calculate what you want (ie how much energy is used) unless we have forced the cost of burning fossils into the items, ie. impose some kind of tax on CO2 production. The calculation of distance alone is almost useless.

In a second article The Economists also point out:

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….

The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them.


13 Responses to Food politics

  1. Sacha Blumen says:

    There is a great appetitie to act in a way that seen to be positive, either environmentally or to help people who are less well-off. The key point in this story is that it’s important to look that things such as fairtrade extremely carefully, especially as the situation may be counter-intuitive.

    A prerequisite for anyone wanting to go into politics should be that they are look at things they hold very dear (eg Fairtrade or nuclear power) very carefully and be open to different ideas. This isn’t too much to ask.

  2. Sacha Blumen says:

    should be: …should be that they are willing to look at things…

  3. steve munn says:

    Interesting topics Steve. I’m not sure who is right in both cases, however I’ll raise a couple of the common counterpoints.

    # Most of the developed world protects its agricultural sector to a greater or lesser extent. That includes the USA, which makes the it something of a hypocrit on trade issues. Even a favoured, friendly nation like Australia suffers as a result to some extent, for example the strict sugar quotas under the (so-called) Australia-USA free trade agreement.

    As Joseph Stiglitz points points out:

    “The rich effectively close their markets to many goods that represent the comparative advantage of the poor. Argentina’s economic position today, indeed, would be vastly different if America and Europe opened their markets to its agricultural goods. The same can be said for country after country in the developing world. ”

    So while the critique of fair trade you mention above may accord with what you might find in an economics 101 textbook, the reality isn’t so straightforward.

    I don’t have much time for organics as I understand it but the permaculture alternative to intensive modern agriculture interests me. We need to see some facts and figures rather then just statements that sound right about pre-eminence of the intesive option. It must be noted that intensive agriculture uses up resources from off the farm eg. bird poo from Nauru. This land use has to be factored into the equation.

    I’m actually selling my house in Melbourne in a few months and making a tree change. I want to put some of the permaculture ideas into practice and see how it goes. I won’t be blogging much until after I’ve moved.

  4. […] Food politics – Steve Edney casts a sceptical eye over the alleged virtues of organic food, fiar trade coffee and locally grown produce.  […]

  5. Cristy says:

    Peter Singer addresses a lot of these issues quite well in The Ethics of What We Eat. He does, however, fail to deal with the issue of overproduction in relation to fair trade products.

    One issue that the account above doesn’t seem to take into account is that the over production of coffee, for example, is not really driven by the farmers themselves, but rather by large scale buyers. If it is them that are being forced to pay more to the farmers for the product, then I am not sure that it is such a simple “subsidy” – in the way that Hartford seems to suggest. However, that doesn’t deal with the issue of supermarket mark ups.

    At the end of the day, the issue for me isn’t what the commodity price is set at, but what the farmer gets paid as a percentage of that price. This is the issue that the fair trade movement seeks to address, the rest is really just a temporary shift until it occupies a greater percentage of the market.

  6. rf says:

    Interesting post, particularly the notion that organic farming is less environment friendly because of the lower yields. I suppose that sets aside the issue of whether it’s a good thing to use pesticides, GM crops etc and I think that is a big factor in the choice that people make when they select organic.
    The revelation that supermarkets manipulate the price based on what the market will bear is not too surprising I guess, but that is a different issue again to the intrinsic value of organic food.
    The DEFRA report finding that food miles travelled might be greater with local producers and their half-empty trucks than that for the lean supermarket chains is not altogether convincing either. Why would farming in the UK be much more energy intensive than in NZ? Strikes me as odd.

  7. Sacha says:

    At a guess – are there lots of subsidies for UK farmers? I’d guess that NZ farmers would have few subsidies.

  8. Steve says:


    Obviously the argument about the value of organic food doesn’t hinge solely on the intensity of production. There are plenty of other reasons why you may prefer organic food, but it does pay to examine the claims carefully.

    On Sacha’s point I think NZ farmers are about the lowest subsidised in the world, I think even less than Australia, which globally has low farm subsidies. These could make them more energy efficient, but not necessarily so. It could be just that it is easier to grow particular crops in particular climates and that the efficiencies you gain from doing this make the energy used in production much less than those of transport.
    One thing that has to be remembered is that the cost of bulk shipping on Energy is low compared with most other forms of tranport. Rail I think is next best but higher.

    Shipping makes up around 2% of global CO2 emissions, less than half of aviation, and a tiny fraction of road transport, and electricity. (Although shipping makes much worse contributions to sulfur and nitric oxides)

    As a strategy for cutting CO2 emissions cutting out bulk tranport seems to be fairly hard compared with say reducing your eletricity, or road transport emissions.

  9. Steve says:

    On Cristy’s point, yes I’ve read singer’s discussion. Actually it was the first I actually thought about this or was really was aware people were trying to buy local on an emissions reduction basis.

  10. rf says:

    I’m not really questioning the veracity of the information and I do agree that it is useful to examine the claims carefully (even when this upsets long held and cherished opinion!).
    I do find it hard to accept the argument about the bulk transport: shipping may well be very efficient in terms of energy usage but unless most UK supermarkets now have large ports attached to their receivals area, the food in them containers is going to end up in road transport in order to reach their final destinations across (in this example) the lenght and breadth of the country. Why or how this could be more efficient than local produce that travels 30km (ok, I’m talking about where I live now) to reach my plate, well , do you see where I’m struggling? The little farm truck is packed full of produce too!
    Anyway, aside from that, the food that has travelled 30km is so much cheaper than the supermarkets stock (ah, snow peas from China!) and is also so much fresher.
    As the NZ climate and UK climate are fairly similar I can’t see how food production in NZ could be so much more energy effiicient to overcome the transport across the globe effect.
    Personally, I think it makes sense to eat in season rather than this silly notion that you should be able to have all produce all year around which would obviate the need for much of this transport.

  11. Steve says:


    Yes, I agree eating in season is in general what is going to save you the most energy. however I wonder in this day of supermarkets and people being used to out of season food are they going to do so?

    the other question is (particularly somewhere like Australia) how far away is too far?

  12. rf says:

    How far is too far? No easy answer to this but I’d venture that if the transport is long enough to reduce the quality of the produce significantly then it’s too far or if transportation requires some form of artificial preservation then it’s too far (I’ll except / accept refrigeration!). Some produce travels better than others of course which is why most of our carrots and cauliflowers and cabbages arrive from China.
    I think there could be a swing back to the use of seasonal produce – think how many TV chefs harp on about using the freshest food to achieve the best results.

  13. […] post by Robert Merkel shows, closer scrutiny suggests such assumptions may not always be true. Steve Edney also wrote a good piece looking at the facts rather than the feel when it comes to environmental impacts of […]

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