Tag Archives: Tom Philpott

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


Food and Class, Culture and Education

One of the better food articles of the year can be found on grist’s website. The piece entitled Food and class was written by Tom Philpott and discusses, not coincidentally, food and class.

The thesis of his post is that thanks in large part to a Food Industrial complex that is focused on delivering calories cost effectively rather than nutrition, the lower class is now dependant upon non-local foodstuffs, rather than local foods from local farms (which is how the lower class has historically been fed in the past).

Another way to put it is in the two different philosophy at odds. The first philosophy is on the one that’s currently in place, and the one advocated by the corporations of the country: “Cheap Food”. The second philosophy is one that’s advocated by the Slow Food and organic groups: “Good Food”.

There’s several points made in his post which can all lead to posts of their own, but I want to focus on an angle that’s brought in the comments – Culture and Education.

Tom writes:

Another factor, as you write, is culture. And with several billion per year in marketing cash to burn, the industrial food system has done a pretty good job of lining up that factor on its side.

There are many, many issues to be addressed if our food culture is to be changed from a calorie based system to a nutritional based system, some of which are discussed in the article. But the one aspect which frustrates me the most is how the corporate machinery uses its wealth to affect food culture, chiefly in the use of advertising, but in other ways as well. As Tom notes:

Industrialization, mass culture, wage stagnation, and Puritanism (e.g., prohibition) have almost completely destroyed traditional foodways here, allowing McDonald’s and the home convenience-food industry to fill the void. A bad-feedback loop thrives; the food industry shovels billions of dollars into marketing and controls school lunches, leaving vast swaths of the population innocent of alternatives and ignorant of what real food tastes like.

It’s clear that many of these companies encourage both ignorance and confusion. Marion Nestle, in her book Food Politics, talks about how much influence the Sugar Lobby had over the wording surrounding the Food Pyramid as it was developed in the early 1990′s. The cattle industry has enough influence that it affects how the USDA is approaching Mad Cow disease. The Fast Food industry has a lobbying firm tasked with confusing the issue surrounding food nutrition versus personal and corporate responsibility.

Then there’s advertising. Take a moment to watch popular afternoon programs for children and note the food products being pimped. Then do the same with popular sporting events. Aside from the products themselves, note how slick these ad campaigns can be.

In both of these approaches, the “good food” folks don’t have an equitable method of affecting the discourse. Sure the proper information is available if you look for it, but often the lower class doesn’t have the resources (in primarily time, but also in money) to go searching for it.

Instead, what we get are chefs at four star restaurants and some of the clientele at Whole Foods advocating for “good food” while often forgetting the “cheap” variable needs to be addressed as well. This gives the “good food” crowd the appearance of being bourgeois along with all of the negative connotations that this label implies.

And I say the above paragraph as a huge fan and proponent of both 4-star restaurants and Whole Foods.

The model for delivering the meme of “Good Food, cheap” is currently flawed. My evidence for this is purely anecdotal, but it includes the dozens of e-mails I get from people asking for advice, wondering about food additives, or outright admitting their ignorance on certain topics about food (I could list out dozens of e-mails containing the phrase “I had no idea” somewhere within their body).

The answer for this problem comes down to this – effective education throughout the entire class system. What should be taught can be ironed out later, but the phrase should come down to the three words that I’ve been repeating in this post:

“Good Food, Cheap”