|Farmer and commentator
Tom Philpott recently deconstructed a
long article in the UK publication The Economist
that pretty much dismissed the organic, local food and
fair trade movements as so much wishful thinking. He says,
Posted January 12, 2007: Last month, the influential
British newsweekly The Economist took the measure of the
sustainable-food movement and found it wanting.
"There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three
of the most popular varieties of 'ethical food': organic food, fair-trade
food, and local food," the journal declared, and proceeded
to subject each to withering analysis.
Like an uncle emboldened by wine at the holiday table, The
Economist sought the role of truth-teller to the complacent
and self-satisfied. "People who want to make the world a better
place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits," the
The coverage sparked a mini-sensation in sustainable-food circles,
peppering blogs and listservs for weeks. My inbox groaned with emails
alerting me to the phenomenon. In person, some people brought it
up in a tone almost of condolence. Shame about how local food doesn't
really work, they said, and didn't need to say the rest: given that
you've devoted your life to it.
The Economist occupies a unique niche within U.S. media.
Unlike homegrown weeklies like Time and Newsweek,
the venerable British journal doesn't pretend to be objective. It
champions European-style liberalism: capitalism fettered only by
minimal and carefully considered government intervention.
Thus when The Economist arrays its
considerable cultural clout against one's pet movement, it pays
to take note. Has the sustainable-food movement been right and
The magazine's admirable openness about its biases confers on it
an authority that must be envied by its U.S. counterparts. While
Time and Newsweek frantically chase relevance
(and straying readers) by devoting cover after cover to celebrities
and God—the ultimate celebrity, perhaps—The Economist
has emerged as the thinking person's weekly in the U.S., read by
academics, policy wonks, politicians and corporate decision-makers
across a broad political spectrum.
Thus when The Economist arrays its considerable cultural
clout against one's pet movement, it pays to take note. Has the
sustainable-food movement been right and well debunked? Should we
stop "voting with our trolleys" (British for shopping
carts) and learn to love industrial food?
As The Economist itself has put it in countless articles:
not so fast.
The Other Side of the Story
The magazine opens its critique by implying that the sustainable-food
movement has abandoned politics in favor of enlightened consumerism.
"Voter turnout in most developed countries has fallen in recent
decades, but sales of organic, fair-trade, and local food—each
with its own political agenda—are growing fast," the
This is an odd juxtaposition. Are shopping at the farmers' market
and voting mutually exclusive acts? By doing the former, are you
absolved from the need to do the latter? If you think so, consider
your argument eviscerated. The magazine demonstrates with convincing
force that consumer choice alone won't solve the environmental and
social depredations of industrial food.
The problem, though, is that few in the movement hold that position.
To be sure, there may be people who think they're saving the planet
by piling their shopping carts high at Whole Foods. But the great
thrust of the food-politics movement is, well, extremely political.
Take the Los Angeles-based Community Food Security Coalition (www.foodsecurity.org),
arguably the most effective nationwide sustainable-food group. Its
annual conferences draw hundreds of people from across the country
who are doing the nuts-and-bolts work of reestablishing local food
networks, through inner-city farming, farmers' markets in low-income
areas, and other initiatives.
To be sure, there may be people who think
they're saving the planet by piling their shopping carts high
at Whole Foods. But the great thrust of the food-politics movement
is, well, extremely political.
At the two CFSC conferences I attended over the past five years,
I heard little rhetoric about how we could shop our way out of our
food problems. Instead, the farm bill—the federal government's
twice-a-decade commitment of largesse to agribusiness—dominated
discussion. The CFSC's broad coalition of food-justice advocates
hardly embody the idea that "the supermarket trolley has dethroned
the ballot box," as The Economist so cheekily put
The sustainable-food movement's very DNA is shot through with a
commitment to political engagement. "Eat responsibly,"
declared Wendell Berry in his seminal 1990 essay "The Pleasures
of Eating." By that, he didn't mean blithely hop into the SUV
and head to a national supermarket chain to pick up a pricey bag
of anonymously grown organic salad, as The Economist's
caricature would have it.
Instead, Berry urged people to become active participants in food
production. He hoped that by gaining knowledge about where food
comes from, people would become more, not less, politically engaged.
The feel-good consumerism skewered by The Economist has
little to do with Berry's influential ethos of knowing and active
participation—an intellectual tradition that thrives today
in the work of Michael Pollan and other writers.
If The Economist's overriding premise—that the sustainable-food
movement has decayed into a sort of self-congratulating shopping
club—is fundamentally ridiculous, it doesn't do much better
on the particulars.
To make the case that organic farming threatens tropical rainforests,
the magazine trots out Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, perhaps industrial
agriculture's greatest apologist. Borlaug, a sort of anti-Wendell
Berry, spearheaded the Green Revolution movement, financed by U.S.
foundations, to promote the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and
fertilizers by farmers in the global south.
The Economist's scolding of consumers
who strive to "buy local" is scarcely more convincing
. . . the magazine ludicrously attempts to paint such efforts
as "protectionist" . . . The U.S. market is currently
flooded with cheap garlic grown in China. Is an individual consumer
being protectionist by opting to pay a premium to buy garlic
from a local farmer?
Borlaug's efforts have incited bitter controversy in agricultural
and social-policy circles, but you'd never know that from The
Economist, which cites him without question to support the
notion that conventional farming delivers higher yields than organic.
"The more intensively you farm, Mr. Borlaug contends, the more
room you have left for rainforest," The Economist
states, with an air of "case closed."
But is chemical-dependent farming really more productive than organic?
Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic
Inc., debunked that claim in a recent
comment on Gristmill. Fromartz points out that chemical farming
may churn out more food per acre under ideal conditions, but over
the long term—including drought periods—the yield difference
dwindles. Moreover, pummeling the soil with chemicals may eventually
sap land of any productivity at all. As Fromartz points out, India—which
bought Borlaug's Green Revolution package wholesale, and is often
cited as one of the effort's great successes—is now experiencing
a severe soil- and water-depletion crisis.
The Economist's scolding of consumers who strive to "buy
local" is scarcely more convincing. For one, the magazine ludicrously
attempts to paint such efforts as "protectionist," which
implies a resort to government power. But in the United States,
at least, I know of no one calling for the erection of trade barriers
against foreign-produced food. The U.S. market is currently flooded
with cheap garlic grown in China. Is an individual consumer being
protectionist by opting to pay a premium to buy garlic from a local
farmer? How so, precisely?
And on what grounds does this journal, which exists to champion
free choice in free markets, denounce consumers for exercising that
The Root of the Problem
More fundamentally, the magazine's contention that food hauled
in from long distances burns less energy than locally produced food
rests on shaky ground. The piece cites a British government report,
concluding that "a shift toward 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 traveled locally,
because things would move around in a larger number of smaller,
less efficiently packed vehicles."
As The Economist points out, people
often live closer to supermarkets than to farmers' markets;
but the answer needn't be to boycott farmers' markets . . .
And in fact, reestablishing accessible, neighborhood retail
points for locally grown food is a major motivating force.
True enough, no doubt, in the U.S. as much as in the U.K. But
in the U.S., at least, government policy for at least 50 years has
decisively favored consolidation of the food industry. The built
environment has been explicitly rigged to facilitate the long-haul
transportation of food, while local food-processing infrastructure
has been dismantled. So yes, as The Economist points out,
people often live closer to supermarkets than to farmers' markets;
but the answer needn't be to boycott farmers' markets.
Just as logically, citizens could organize to pressure local governments
to invest in more farmers' markets. If energy efficiency is the
goal, such efforts could be coupled with a movement to reinvest
in public transportation. And in fact, reestablishing accessible,
neighborhood retail points for locally grown food is a major motivating
force for groups associated with the above-mentioned Community Food
But that's not the sort of political organizing The Economist
would prefer to see from food-justice advocates. The magazine wants
us to return to the chain supermarkets and spend our energy instead
on pushing politicians toward action in the form of "a global
carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition
of agricultural tariffs and subsidies."
It's bizarre advice, coming from a free-market magazine: severely
limit your own options and ask the government to solve your problems.
And while the political goals it supports are no doubt worthy, they
in no way absolve citizens from the need to wrest control of their
food decisions from corporations and actively create the food system