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December 10, 2006

Food Fight!!!!

Via the ASI this excellent piece in The Economist.

Organic farming is bad for the environment. Fair Trade locks farmers into poverty. Farmer's markets and the local food movement promote more food miles than supermarkets.

Great eh? People are actively promoting the very things they claim to be against!

Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn't be much room left for the rainforest.
...
Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers' incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer. But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction. By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses prices—thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do.
...

Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise “food miles” and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain's food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer's market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff.

What's more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive.

None of this is actually new information of course, but it's nice to see it being stated so publically.

So, any greenies want to try and defend ploughing the wilds, impoverishing peasants and boiling the planet?

More details here.

December 10, 2006 in Food and Drink | Permalink

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Comments

I sure can, Tim. Firstly, the article isn't even self-consistent, and has a number of different and conflicting issues completely mixed up. Let's see:

"Organic methods... are far less intensive... But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction," kind of answers itself.

And in what way is it a "subsidy" if someone attempts to buy from a source that's not doesn't use child labour? If the coffee tastes the same, paying more is economically wrong, is it?

And that food from New Zealand energy claim made by the "Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit" in New Zealand -- no conflict of interest here at all, is there? Are you really prepared to swallow anything that conforms to your politics, no matter how daft? It doesn't pass the laugh test.

I've managed to dig out the particular report for you.

http://www.lincoln.ac.nz/story_images/2328_RR285_s6508.pdf

In New Zealand their apple trees are so amazing they get 50 tonnes of apples per hectare as opposed to only 14 tonnes we get here. Also, it's important that we freeze them for 6 months before we eat the sodding fruit to make the comparison with shipping it halfway round the world fair. It's the same for the onions: after we've stored them in an industrial refrigerator from August until July, rather than hung them up on a string in the back porch, they nearly beat us.

And as for sheepmeat production, I'll let you work out what astonishing advances in biotechnology unavailable to the good farmers in Great Britain that accounts for the difference. I'll tell you one thing: I have never seen 76kg per hectare of Nitrogen chemicals being sprayed all over the hillsides in Yorkshire. I would have noticed it.

While you're at it, what is the economic explanation -- if there is one -- for Britain exporting 200 million quid of lamb every year at the same time as it imports 200 million quid of lamb? If you care.

Tim adds: 'And in what way is it a "subsidy" if someone attempts to buy from a source that's not doesn't use child labour? If the coffee tastes the same, paying more is economically wrong, is it?'

Err, yes actually. It might be morally wrong to buy from child labour but not economically so. I would argue that in fact it is both economically and morally a requirement to buy from child labour. The rest of your comment is blather. Does organic farming require more or less land? Does importing food create more or fewer CO2 emissions?

Posted by: Julian Todd | Dec 10, 2006 8:05:00 PM

"what is the economic explanation -- if there is one -- for Britain exporting 200 million quid of lamb every year at the same time as it imports 200 million quid of lamb?"

Simple answer...It is not the same lamb. Someone, somewhere wants something different, and will pay for it.

JBP

Posted by: John Powers | Dec 10, 2006 8:45:59 PM

That really is a hilariously weak article.

"producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated."

I do hope they actually backed this striking claim up with some citations, as it is directly contradicted many other sources. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_farming and http://www.i-sis.org.uk/OrganicAgriculture.php

Key point from the second one is that organic farming appears to actually *increase* yields in many developing-country environments, suggesting that it would be good for economic growth too. But I'm sure if you and the Economist actually have any research that says otherwise (as opposed to vague hand-waving) you'll tell me.

"By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more"#

Er, the Fairtrade system only 'encourages' those farmers who can get FT accreditation because only they get the full price, so it can't be encouraging anyone else - in fact if the demand for coffee is constant than more demand for FT will reduce the price for non-FT produce and 'discourage' non-FT producers. And since FT by definition sets a price floor, if all farmers switched to FT tomorrow average prices would go up, not down. Incidentally, I have to say I find it strange that the Economist thinks making Third World farmers go bankrupt (so that they can 'diversify' - into what? Superconductors?) is such a wonderful thing.

"Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer's market"

Jesus. That's because there are probably several hundred times as many supermarkets as there are farmers markets. Idiots.

Anyway, most farmers are in city or town centres, and therefore accessible by public transport as well as being closer than out of town supermarkets.

Tim adds: 'Anyway, most farmers are in city or town centres'

They are? So what are all those buggers out in the country doing then?

Posted by: Jim | Dec 10, 2006 9:35:48 PM

"Err, yes actually. It might be morally wrong to buy from child labour but not economically so."

This is weird Tim. I thought consumers were sovereign, and also were aware of the costs and benefits to them and could calculate them correctly. Here you're implying that they can't?

Tim adds: Depends what the alternative for the child is. Sewing footballs or buggering tourists? And I'm certainly not one of those who insist that consumers have perfect knowledge. Much more pragmatic than that, in that the interaction of their imperfect knowledge runs the world better than the interaction of bureaucrat's imperfect knowledge (and institutional pressures like public choice theory etc).

Posted by: Matthew | Dec 10, 2006 10:33:12 PM

I read that article too. It's an example of the Lomberg phenomenon - ie a piece which makes good points and bad points, but which perpetuates unhelpful conflict both in the way it is written and the way it is recieved.

There are many people who think that organic/local etc is the answer to everything. They're wrong, s this article helps to point out. That doesn't mean the opposite is true - that wholesale global agribusiness is the only way forward. That's how you seem to be using this report, and that's wrong too.

Tim Harford's point about the way retailers use fairtrade is a very good one for example, and shows how a panacea for the conscience is an illusion. But your point about the economics of child-labour is unhelpful - buying in a moral vacuum does happen, but trying to change that can't be a bad thing (the point is also shortsighted of course - would thr UK really be economically better off if most of our children still went to factories rather than being educated?).

The point about higher global yields from inorganic and GM crops is often made, and massively important. But the point about food miles is rubbish - note how it is for "food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food)" - ie it doesn't count the actual process of importing...

I just don't get why articles like these, and Lomberg's book, always have to be slapped down on the table like a challenge, or a trump card, which others counter with the rainforests. But, if we must... You challenge the greenies to defend ploughing the wild. I'd challenge you to explain the solution to the destruction of the rainforests, caused by the natural operation of market forces in the search for cheap meat. If you say "proper land rights", of course, you've just copped out.


Tim adds: 'the point is also shortsighted of course - would thr UK really be economically better off if most of our children still went to factories rather than being educated?' Rather more force to that argument if they were in fact being educated.

'I'd challenge you to explain the solution to the destruction of the rainforests, caused by the natural operation of market forces in the search for cheap meat. If you say "proper land rights", of course, you've just copped out.'

In the absence of property rights you can't actually have a market. So your basic criticism, that the rainforests are being cut down by market forces fails. It is, rather, Marxian exploitation which is leading to their coming down. That's basic Garrett Hardin, that is.

Posted by: alabastercodify | Dec 10, 2006 10:45:53 PM

[Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers' incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer]

No it isn't. Whoever wrote this does not understand what the Fairtrade trading and certification organisation actually does.

[But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction]

A bald assertion. Also note that "agricultural commodities" and "food" do not mean the same thing.

[By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops]

"Other crops"? What other crops are there other than agricultural commodities?

[ and so depresses prices—thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do.]

Whoever wrote this has no idea about a) the scale of Fairtrade production relative to world production and b) differentiation in agricultural products.

I am very strongly of the opinion that this is just a rewrite of Brink Lindsey's working paper of two years aoo "Grounds for Complaint", which was crap then and has not improved with age.

Posted by: dsquared | Dec 11, 2006 7:45:31 AM

Then again D2, your comment is yet another repeat of your constant moaning rubbish, which are all crap and have never improved.

The Lomborg phenomenon is also wrongly described, it consists of large dollops of the truth with trifling errors which are seized upon by leftards with large egos and small dicks as invalidating the entire exposition. None of the critiques of Lomborg even attempted to address his data, instead they were almost entirely composed of ad-homs and outright lies perpetuated by those with the most to lose should his points be accepted.

Posted by: Bentley Strange | Dec 11, 2006 9:09:59 AM

"'Anyway, most farmers are in city or town centres'"

Farmers *markets*, obviously. Care to actually answer the point?

Posted by: Jim | Dec 11, 2006 10:03:33 AM

Looks like a dying thread, but whatever...

meaningful land rights are indeed absent in much of the amazon basin, but the mechanism by which that fact is taken advantage of by the importers, amnufacturers and consumers of developed countries is a fully functioning market. To say the situation should be left as it is because the only solution is decent property rights in the Amazon is lame - that's not going to happen soon in any major way - we must address it here. The same goes for example for illegally logged timber.
That's certainly how it appears to me anyway. What do you think?

And Bentley Strange's little tantrum is exactly what I was getting at. He's chosen his side of the argument and that's that. One " trifling error" I'd point him to is the idea that de-forestation doesn't matter because there is also a lot of regrowth. The statistican sitting in his study in Copenhagen doesn't think it matters that the loss is in an area of incredible bio-diversity and the regain is in single growth forests. FOr him, the numbers add up and that's all.

Posted by: alabastercodify | Dec 11, 2006 7:34:26 PM

"Simple answer...It is not the same lamb. Someone, somewhere wants something different, and will pay for it."

But why??? It's the same kind of meat! As far as I know, there isn't a discrimination over it, like the Greeks buy our lamb because it's fair-trade, and we prefer the taste of tough old frozen carcasses from New Zealand because we hate UK farmers.

Economics is a religion. The practicioners never show any curiosity when the evidence contradicts their theory. They are not scientific.

Posted by: Julian Todd | Dec 11, 2006 7:57:41 PM

Firstly, the strength of reaction against this shows me that we need to look at it. It certainly challenges assumptions which need challenging.

Fairtrade is branding. It does not help raise people out of poverty on any meaningful scale, it simply plays on people's moral fears.

As for the lamb question: Time is probably the answer. Its different lamb because it was produced at different times. We don't have a continuous supply of lamb in this country so we buy lamb when we need it, and sell it when we have excess. Its called trade.

Those who decry economics as being a religion are the most humourous. They don't look at evidence, they look at anecdotes and cloud their judgment with emotion and preconceptions. Economics bases itself in facts (well its meant to, unfortunately politicians and self-interest get in the way as with all people), not superstitions and anecdotes.

And as the last point: The only fair trade is free trade.

Posted by: Tristan | Dec 12, 2006 8:57:46 PM