Grist Responds to The Economist

About a month ago, The Economist published an article that essentially read “People who believe in Organic Foods, Fair trade Practices and the Local Food Movements are stupidheads“. In their article, they take several swipes at the ideas of ‘Ethical Shopping’, including citing Norman Bourlaug -

Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolutionˮ, 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 “ridiculousˮ 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.

Tom Philpott responds to the piece (and Mr. Bourlaug) in his most recent post over at Grist.

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.

When the initial Economist article came out, I ignored it for a variety of reasons , but primarily because it was the Christmas Season and I did not wish to engage in a topic which would knock over my Holiday Spirit (a nice rummed egg nog). But now that Mr. Philpott has returned to the discussion, I’d like to add my two pesos.

To me, The Economist’s basic argument is that food choices are an “either/or” proposition. Either traditional “industrial” food is better for society or “organic/fair trade/local” is. And since they’ve shown in the article that those who opt for the latter are spitting in the wind, that leaves “industrial” food as the better option.

Which, as many folks have shown over the past four decades, is a crock. All three of the movements cited in the Economist article seek to right the wrongs inflicted by the industrial food complex. Whether these movements are effective or not isn’t really the point, because if it is found that a process is not working as planned, new options will be tried and implemented. What won’t happen is someone saying “Oh well, Fair Trade doesn’t seem to be working, so let’s go back to the old model”.

What we’re seeing played out in these movements is the idea of food distribution evolution, not that of corporate competition. But it seems that the capitalists in the audience don’t see it that way. What they have either forgotten or chosen to ignore is that there’s a notable percentage of consumers who no longer trust the industrial model. And trust that is lost is almost impossible to regain.

Regardless of what I think, go read Mr. Philpott’s response, as he has better statistics and information to refute some of the specifics of The Economist piece.

tags technorati : Food Politics Organic Food Fair Trade

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