Food politics

8 December, 2006

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.

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The ethics of what we eat – Part III

2 September, 2006

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.
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The Ethics of What We Eat – part II

20 August, 2006

In the first part of this I dicussed what I saw as shortcomings from an Australian perspective, here I’ll actually discuss the book.

The book itself it is divided into roughly three sections, the first being a typical American family, who on analysis eat food that mostly comes from “factory farms”. The second family are “conscientious omnivores”, they are more discriminating the father is vegetarian and the meat that is bought is mostly free range. They also purchase on the basis on such concepts as buying locally, fair trade and organic food. The third family are vegan family, their main ethical concerns are about avoiding GM eating organic food and the question of whether it is ethical to raise children as vegans.

The attempt is made to trace where the food they purchase in each situation comes from, how that food is produced and what are the effects of producing it.
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The Ethics of What We Eat – Part I

15 August, 2006

I’ve just finished reading “The Ethics of What We Eat” by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (apparently called “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” in the US). Not the sort of thing I usually read, but I was offered it by a vegetarian friend of mine who thought it would turn you off eating meat. I thought I might as well read it and, if the arguments really were that persuasive, well so be it (not likely but I would give it a go). Anyway what I have to say about it was getting long so I am cutting it into a few pieces so I actually get it out.

My wife commented that if someone sees you reading this book they’ll think you are a vegan (and possibly smelly), and I think she’s right. It’s a bit sad that people will assume that you read to confirm your beliefs rather than challenge them, but its probably what people mostly do. Certainly when I searched for reviews it seems that they are mostly done by people sympathetic to the general thrust of the arguments.

Over all I enjoyed the book, although I have numerous objections. In general I think the ethical logic is pretty well argued, its just I’m starting from some different precepts. I’ll come right out now and say it hasn’t convinced me to stop eating meat, but perhaps in one or two issues has swayed me a little into thinking about what food I should buy. In the end though I just plain disagree with the authors on the degree we should care about animal’s welfare. I value the suffering of the cow I eat my way through every 5-6 years less than my enjoyment of eating meat. Sounds a little heartless but I’ll elaborate later on.
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