- Organic food may reduce the use of harmful fertilizers, but it generally lowers yield and therefore requires more land and energy.
- Fairtrade does not significantly help farmers because most of the mark-up for fairtrade goods goes to retailers. Furthermore, the guaranteed high price induces overproduction, the very cause of low wages. At best, buying fairtrade is an inefficient means of foreign aid. Given the choice between $6/lb for conventional coffee and $8/lb for fairtrade coffee, you would be advised to buy the former and send $2 to a third world farmer directly.
- Buying from local producers rather than grocery stores that import their food from the throughout the world often decreases fuel efficiency because you substitute efficient trasportation (tons of food packed tightly in a truck) for an inefficient one (a grocery bag in the back of your car). An environmentally friendly compromise might be locally produced food sold at grocery stores. However, food production may be so much more efficient in some locations that translocating it thousands of miles is more efficient than producing it locally. I highlight one example from the article further along.
What bothers me is that I had to find this information in The Economist rather than, say, from the Sierra Club. Why aren’t environmental groups doing the research and critical thinking about spurious environmental claims themselves? As the examples above illustrate, you do not need sophisticated techniques or reasoning to see why organic, fairtrade and local foods may not help the world. The explanation, I believe, lies in the fact the environmental impact of agriculture is complex and multi-faceted. As with my example below on minimum wage, this makes it easy to find numerous facts that support your previously held conclusion, even if on balance you are wrong. I hold out hope that organic and local agriculture are on balance better for the environment, (I don’t think there is hope for fairtrade), but I don’t think we will know conclusively until environmental groups treat the issue with the requisite complexity, taking into account all pertinant factors.
Until that day comes, I suggest a provisional solution. My interpretation is that in some cases there are positive environmental consequences of ethical food shopping, but organic, fairtrade and local labels are not reliable indicators. Consequently, consistently shopping in the most environmentally manner requires detailed information on inputs of energy, land, and labor at all points along the supply chain, the trade-offs between those factors (how many acres of rainforest are equal to a ton of pollution?), the scarcity of the product and its inputs, and how inputs and scarcity change through time. I propose that environmentalists adopt the use of a simple, universal index that, ceteris paribus, has the following properties:
- Increases with increasing inputs of energy, land, and labor (signalling that you should buy less of it)
- Increases with scarcity (signalling you to stop buying a resource as it becomes rare)
- Takes into account all trade-offs
- Adjusts rapidly to changing conditions (so you can change your behavior optimally)
Obviously, if the price mechanism were enough, there wouldn’t be environmental problems, but prices are distorted by many sources. Government outlays and taxes alter prices, changing the signals given to producers and consumers. For example, domestic agricultural subsidies incentivize overproduction. Restrictions to trade, such as tariffs and quotas, shift production from efficient sources to inefficient sources, increasing prices. The article cites a finding that lamb produced in New Zealand and shipped to England uses less energy than lamb produced and sold in England. A hypothetical trade barrier between the two countries would harm the environment by causing the English to produce more lamb domestically. Lest someone accuse me of being a libertarian, we must also consider market failures, where price does not accurately reflect cost. For example, taxes on fossil fuels, while distorting the market price, arguably improve economic efficiency by mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change. As The Economist advises, environmental progress will be made by pressuring politicians to enact such taxes rather thean by ethical shopping.
If you still want to send a message at the grocery store, trying spending less. It may not be as fun as ethical shopping, but less demand for food will undoubtedly decrease agricultural output.