Saturday, January 6, 2007

False Economist

Early last month, The Economist tackled the subject of ethical eating with a feature story and (worse) an editorial (for subscribers only) that revealed an astonishing level of ignorance for a publication of such quality. The editorially neoliberal and neoconservative major daily where I live - the Winnipeg Free Press - published the editorial, suckering me into yet another futile letter to the editor. (The freep rarely publishes my letters any more, and this was no exception.)

Well, freep - I'm doin' the blog thing now, so I'll publish it here:

False Food Dichotomies

Re: Food Fallacies, Dec. 10.

The Economist creates a false dichotomy between voting with your shopping cart and voting or acting politically to reform food policy. The two are complementary. In the European Union, for example, years of consumer rejection of eggs from caged hens and pork from crated sows led in the late 90s to bans on both practices (still, unfortunately, the norm in Manitoba).

The Economist
also gets some key facts wrong, ignoring, for example, the net scientific evidence that organic farming gives comparable yields to nonorganic farming, but with the bonus of far superior sustainability (see, for example:

Finally, The Economist uses the moral dilemmas posed by certain ethical eating choices - local or fair trade (imported), for example - to undermine the ethical eating endeavour itself when the reasonable solution is for conscientious consumers to shop with ever greater knowledge and discernment. This, after all, is how conscientious people confront moral challenges of all kinds.

Syd Baumel

Thankfully, Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine has taken The Economist to task in a space considerably larger than my unpublished letter. "Like an uncle emboldened by wine at the holiday table," Pilpott writes, "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 magazine lectured.

"The coverage sparked a mini-sensation in sustainable-food circles, peppering blogs and listservs for weeks," Philpott continues. "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."

Even the New York Times took note of the tempest in a fair trade teapot whipped up by The Economist's audacious story.

I piped up myself in a "Gristmill" discussion, venting about one of The Economist's fallacies in particular:
As others are pointing out here and elsewhere online, an inexcusable proportion of the The Economist's key criticisms don't stand up to scrutiny. One that I haven't seen debunked is that demand for Certified Fair Trade foods - in this case, coffee - somehow increases demand for their non-fair trade counterparts, thereby increasing production and lowering prices even more. Perhaps I'm missing something, but this is like arguing that demand for Priuses increases demand for Hummers or that demand for organic apples increases demand for all apples. There is coffee (and tea and chocolate and bananas etc.) and there is Certified Fair Trade coffee. When shoppers buy more Fair Trade products, demand for THOSE PRODUCTS increases, sending a signal that it's safe for more producers to switch to growing these commodities in this more socially and environmentally responsible way. Another signal is sent to producers of the non-Fair Trade commodities: demand is falling, produce less.
Three issues on and The Economist hasn't published a single letter to the editor on their fair food faux pas. This is quite remarkable, because in the UK, where the magazine is published, erudite ethical eaters and organizations abound. The Economist must have attracted a flood of letters pointing out the errors of their ways. All as futile as my letter to the freep. Ah well. This is what blogs are for.

Syd Baumel
Post a Comment