Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Why good food is not always so "good".

This blog has always been keen on environmental issues; global warming, CO2 emission, etc…. but how do we apply grand ideas to our daily lives? There are basic things we all know about of course: using public transport instead of cars, taking showers instead of baths, turning off the lights when leaving a room, or buying organic food, etc….

Let’s take this latest example. Buying organic food (called “bio” in French) or fair-trade food may be a bit more expensive but it seems a rather easy thing to do. More importantly, it feels good! After all, not only am I supporting good economic development, and I’m helping the planet and my health at the same time. In other words, it seems like the perfect deal – I can reconcile my selfish desires with morality. Of course, I have been always known at some level that things must be slightly more complicated than that but what do I know….

Well, this week, The Economist is busting the myth really hard. Their cover takes on a rather pessimistic view of the whole food business.

If we just look at the topic of organic food, here’s a bit of depressing news for you:

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. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

So in other words, because it is less intensive, organic food requires more room to be cultivated so the whole thing might just be counterproductive: when we buy organic food, we may actually be even destroying the rainforest. Great! And I thought I was doing something good.

Well, perhaps we could at least argue that organic food requires less energy to be produced. That surely is a good thing, isn’t it? Well, thin again:

Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing.

Besides, it appears that only "one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing".

Last chance, how about buying organic food from your local producer? (providing you have one). Wouldn’t that help? Well, that too may be counterproductive: "a mile traveled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad is actually worse for the environment than a mile traveled by a large truck full of groceries is not as bad for the environment as.'. That makes sense... but it sucks....

In fact, 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.

Now, I’m depressed.

The Economist suggest that our “feel-good” impulse when buying food may be a diversion from addressing the real issues which may require more painful decisions :

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. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world's governments have so far failed to do.

Now, by the way, they make a similar argument about "fair-trade"..... (read here or here)

As far as what I’ll buy next time I’m at the groceries, I think I’ll just accept being selfish and stick to organic good simply because there is at least chance it might be better for my health after all. I will have just drop any pretence of morality about it.

NOTE: now of course, the whole issue is very controversial and I am sure you could find just as many scientists making the opposite argument, and is not because The Economist says so that it is true. What I find interesting though is that these articles make us slightly more aware of the complexity of the issue so we look at the different facts and not just the truthiness of what our options are.

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