Could anyone besides the Economist dare to think it could overturn three of green shoppers’ sacred labels in a mere three pages? Its 12/7/06 article “Voting with Your Trolley” tries to debunk organic, Fair Trade, and local foods all at once. I didn’t find it very convincing.

I’m going to leave Fair Trade for those with more expertise in global economics and stick to the organic and local arguments.

“But not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment,” the magazine states. The main argument here is that “organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food” – so, more land gets devoted to agriculture and less to those rainforests environmentalists are always yammering about.

Andrew Leonard of How the World Works has a thoughtful post on the article, and he points to a page of links from the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture of the University of Minnesota. One of those links is to a research paper by Dr. Chris Vasilikiotis of UC Berkeley, which summarizes the results of several studies comparing organic and conventional agriculture. Although the studies found some variability in crop levels from year to year, on the whole the yields for organic crops were similar and, in some cases, better than the yields for conventional crops. Perhaps most importantly, organic cropland tended to have better fertility and produce higher yields in years of low rainfall – something we can expect more of in an era of global warming.

This is by no means an exhaustive comparison of organic and conventional agriculture, and it focuses on US crops only, but it would’ve been nice to see the Economist acknowledge that there’s some debate about the superior crop yield claim. Also, while the article champions the poor in its Fair Trade section, it doesn’t get into the issue of whether poor farmers can afford all of the chemical inputs required in conventional agriculture.

Even if organic farming does turn out to require more land to produce the same yields, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the world has to devote more land to agriculture. Much of the grain produced, especially in the US, goes to feed livestock (an inefficient use of it) and produce corn syrup; if voracious meat eaters cut back a bit and we all consumed less corn syrup, we could grow much less grain and probably be healthier, too.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in this anti-organic argument, though, is that the Economist devotes no ink to the many harmful effects of pesticides, which include harm to workers exposed to the chemicals; marine problems (e.g., dead zones, algal blooms) from runoff; and harmful effects on wildlife.

(Leonard also raises another consideration: “What happens if the price of oil rises to a point where using petrochemically derived fertilizers becomes economically unfeasible?”)

The article’s argument against purchasing locally grown food is that the current food distribution system is actually highly efficient, even if it does involve shipping food hundreds of thousands of miles, for two reasons. First: “A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad.” Second: Some countries produce food in ways that are far less energy-intensive; for example, a study by DEFRA, Britain’s environment and farming ministry found that it was more energy intensive to produce dairy, lamb, apples, and onions in Britain than to produce them in New Zealand and ship them to Britain.

The Economist also mentions that even if flying food from the developing world produces more emissions, that should be weighed against the boost to trade and development. That’s a fair point. Since the local food movement is still a very small and slow-growing part of the global food economy, I don’t think this is a major concern right now, but it’s worth noting.

I skimmed the 93-page DEFRA report (PDF here), and it’s fascinating to see all the detail they go into, down to the energy required to manufacture the fertilizer components and the CO2 emissions from that process. What I didn’t see so much of was estimates of the energy and resources it takes to manufacture and maintain the vessels and infrastructure used to ship the food such long distances, so I’m curious how much a role that plays in the equation.

One concern about shipping food long distances is that it tends to concentrate relevant emissions in a few spots – international ports and airports and regional food distribution centers. A recent report by the Pacific Institute on the health costs related to pollution from California’s ports estimates that freight transport-related health impacts will total $200 billion over the next 15 years and cut short the lives of 2,400 Californians each year.

Revere at Effect Measure also noted another public health consideration for today’s centralized food distribution: Until recent decades, most foods were locally grown, produced, and distributed so, “If a farm sold contaminated produce people got sick but the number and geographic scope was limited.” Today, E. Coli contamination in California spinach can cause illness and even death nationwide.

The more we rely on local foods, the less we’re vulnerable to widespread supply disruption or contamination from a key point – be it an E. Coli scare, a strike, or a terrorist attack.

Different Solutions
In response to existing problems with both centralized, synthetic agriculture and the local, organic alternative, I guess the Economist and I just push for different solutions. The Economist would probably advocate for improving fuel efficiency of long-distance food transportation and might argue that new, improved pesticides or other techniques could mitigate the damage caused by today’s chemical farming inputs. I’d rather convince people to eat less meat and corn syrup and not drive their SUVs to the store for a bag of salad mix. (My neighbors and I walk or bike to our local farmers’ market, but I know suburbanites don’t always have that option – which is why I also advocate for better development and transportation planning, so that more people can shop less energy intensively.)

I’m not surprised that we champion different solutions, but I do wish they’d given this topic more of the discussion it deserved.