Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Concerns over food and trade and miles

"The concern over carbon emissions is legitimate. But the "food miles" (or "air-miles") argument has three flaws. First, the total carbon emissions associated with the import of organic foods is very small - even tiny - so a halt to certification would have almost zero practical effect.

Second, local transport (especially on European roads) is a major source of carbon emissions, in addition to the costs of congestion and accidents; this includes the vehicles of shoppers (including consumers of organic foods). The combined effect here far outstrips the airfreight emissions of - for example - beans from Kenyan farmers tightly packed into the hold of a plane.

Third, the estimate of carbon emissions should take into account the entire production chain. It may be intuitive to think that distance travelled is an indicator for environmental damage, but other indicators must be factored in to an analysis: the lower-energy intensity of production in the tropics and southern hemisphere, for example. "

Sent to me by dear Kirsten, this article raises an important issue, albeit incompletely. I have discussed this same issue in an earlier post, and I will just pose the problem again, because I still do not have a satisfactory answer: Is carbon cost the only reason why we should question export-oriented farming, even if it is organic? How about the fact that export favors large investors who create monopolies. Even in the case of small farmers, the fact that middle men are needed for export and for all the associated bureaucratic complications favors monopsonies. All of these reduce the profits of farmers and tends to make them more like wage laborers on their own lands. Moreover, there is another issue: the invisible hand of the market. Organic food, made to satisfy the delicate taste buds and immune systems of the people of the North is often out of the reach of the people of the South who grow it. They end up eating the worst, unclean and unhealthy polluted and contaminated produce they cannot sell abroad, while they export the best of the land to Europe. This is an aberration and a terrible one, but it is intrinsic to free trade and free markets. This is the case in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia where organic production is a capital intensive operation and where produce is packed and inspected and flown from the farm without reaching the local markets. I raised this objection with some French people in a recent seminar about farming and trade, and their answer was that if the prices obtained from selling abroad are better, then producers (traders in reality) would sell abroad. This is of course perfectly true, but it does not take into account that "abroad" is also where there are organized markets, where there is a good financial infrastructure, where there are better year-round prices for such products; and most importantly, it is where people are richer. This means that Europeans, who have higher purchasing power and a more organized market structure compete for African food with Africans who have a low purchasing power and weak commercial structures. No wonder the traders would rather sell to the Europeans, leaving the worst for the locals. Sometimes this unfair competition for food is called "Fair Trade".

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