Monday, January 15, 2007

What's a Trolley?

For the short time I lived in London, I shopped at the local Tesco (the one right by the Oxford circus tube stop). I never used a TROLLEY (the Brit's fancy word for shopping cart) though; since I was hoofing it home, I figured I should only purchase what fit easily in my backpack.

A special report, “Food politics: Voting with your Trolley” in the Dec. 9th issue of The Economist brought the trolley-less Tesco shopping experience back into vivid relief.

The article contends that conscientious shopping cannot save the planet, and in some instances, might even do more harm than good. The article considers three “types” of ethical food shopping: organic, fair trade, and local. Each has its problems, as The Economist concisely points out.

For example, organic farming has been hailed as better for the environment since no (or few) synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are used. As The Economist reports, though, organic farming methods can take up more space (yields are generally lower) and might take just as much or more energy than conventional farming, since fields must be ploughed more intensely. The article also quotes Norman Borlaug, recently heralded here by the sugardaddy of the Jurisdynamics network. Mr. Borlaug is credited with noting that the more intensely you farm, the more room is left over for rainforests. This is a point well taken, if, in fact, we were actually using the left over room for preserving rainforests. But are we? We also don’t know, yet, the true cost of the massive amounts of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Fair trade doesn’t get off much better, in The Economist’s eyes. To the extent fair trade is a guaranteed minimum payment, it encourages overproduction and winds up keeping prices low. By focusing only on small produces, Fair Trade does nothing to help laborers/wage-workers on larger farms. It is “an inefficient way to get money to poor producers.” (74). On the other hand, some fair trade groups, such as the Rainforest Alliance, are doing thing slightly differently, and get a less damning critique, at least from this article.

If “‘local is the new organic’” (75) has local overcome some of the criticism that organic faces? Yes and no. In some ways, according to The Economist, local food makes sense and is better for the environment and for producer’s pocketbooks. Sometimes, however, food is fresher, and it actually takes less energy to munch an imported Spanish tomato than one grown in a greenhouse in Britain. (75).

So if you’re an environmentalist, it’s not as easy as simply buying organic. If you are a crusader for better working conditions for producers, it’s not as easy as looking for a Fair Trade label. But really, who thought it was? The article makes one point with which I have absolutely no quibble – that is, “tackling climate change, boosting development and reforming the global trade system will require difficult political choises.” (75) We will see, I hope, some of those political choices being made in our country in the 2007 Farm Bill.

Other blogs commenting on this article can be found by clicking the following links: Sustainable Food’s letter to the editor.
Fairtrade’s commentary on the article.

To read the article for yourself, click here.