The Economist – a dangerous smarty pants

You could do this pretty much every week with The Economist, though you would need a lot of spare time. The “this” I’m talking about is to demolish their slick but intellectually dishonest arguments.

The December 9-15 edition is a classic, featuring the cover headline “Good food? Why ethical shopping harms the world”. Guaranteed to grab readers’ attention? Yes. Provocative? Yes. Backed up by solid arguments inside? Do me a favour.

Why should we care? Just the little matter of a million-plus copies sold weekly to the world’s richest and most powerful people (and to me, I see it as an essential exercise to rebut their arguments, if only to myself).

Let’s look at the editorial, which I’ve pasted below, along with my numbered, notes. This post is long, the notes break up its flow, but I hope you find it’s worth the effort.

Article starts here:
If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse (1 – already the front cover claim “Why ethical shopping harms the world” is toned down. Not feeling so confident now?)

“You don’t have to wait for government to move… the really fantastic thing about Fairtrade is that you can go shopping!” So said a representative of the Fairtrade movement in a British newspaper this year. Similarly Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University, argues that “when you choose organics, you are voting for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil and cleaner water supplies.” (2 – Except it’s not similarly at all, it’s three totally separate points to the first one, none of which you address at all in this leader article)

The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive. Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarket trolley instead. (3 – This is The Economist’s summary of what Fairtrade is about, backed by one fragmented quote from an unnamed Fairtrade “representative”: ignore politics and just shop.) Elections occur relatively rarely, but you probably go shopping several times a month, providing yourself with lots of opportunities to express your opinions. If you are worried about the environment, you might buy organic food; if you want to help poor farmers, you can do your bit by buying Fairtrade products; or you can express a dislike of evil multinational companies (4 – So belittle the argument by characterizing its proponents as naive attackers of “evil” multinationals, again this is The Economist’s summary. This editorial technique is called the “straw man” – you build up an absurd argument that you can then tear down) and rampant globalisation by buying only local produce. And the best bit is that shopping, unlike voting, is fun; so you can do good and enjoy yourself at the same time. (5 – Again, summarise your opponent’s argument but only so as to infantilise it)

Sadly, it’s not that easy. (6 – Oh really? And who was it that said it was?) There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three of the most popular varieties of “ethical” food: organic food, Fairtrade food and local food. People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits: transforming the planet requires duller disciplines, like politics (7 – So these naïve shoppers will have to think for themselves, do you think they’ll be OK? No one said people can’t do both, other than you, that is).

Buy organic, destroy the rainforest
(8 – Should read “Eat soya-fed factory farmed meat, destroy the rainforest”. More in the vein of ridiculous, provocative and unsubstantiated)

Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends what you mean by “environmentally friendly”. Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the “green revolution” of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation (9 – Let’s forget, shall we, the uncharted health effects of the chemicals released into the environment and left behind in foods, let’s forget the topsoil loss, let’s forget the unsustainable use of water, let’s forget the destruction of soil life and farmland species, let’s forget the unsustainable use of hydrocarbons used in industrial food production and their attendant climate change effects. Is that enough to be started with? Much of the “green revolution’s” output has been to raise more animals for meat). 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 (10 – That’s your justification for the sub heading? You guys are a complete joke. How about eating less meat?).

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 (11 – Have we got time to get into this one? Agricultural overproduction, from the aforementioned “green revolution”, occurs mainly in Europe and the United States. To use this as an argument against Fairtrade is facile. Where there is overproduction in fair-traded products is usually due to the unpayable debts poor countries have built up due to The Economist’s friends in the IMF etc. and which they have to service by pumping out whatever they have to earn foreign currency. It’s complicated but you started this) 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. And since only a small fraction of the mark-up on Fairtrade foods actually goes to the farmer—most goes to the retailer—the system gives rich consumers an inflated impression of their largesse and makes alleviating poverty seem too easy (12 – Inflated impressions are hardly uncommon, and it’s you saying they exist whereas consumers aren’t necessarily that naïve. The argument doesn’t detract from the benefits that fairtrade farmers do indeed reap, by for example having floors under prices that relate to the cost of subsistence).

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 (13 – Or, it may not. Most people in Britain (share of world population, maybe 1%) may live closer to a supermarket than a farmer’s market, or rather maybe most people in southeast England. You have chosen one example here, heavily conditional, and extrapolated it to the entire local food argument. Let me do the same. What, for example, should we make of a “free” market that has Scottish prawns airfreighted to China for processing and airfreighted back to bathe in the thousand island sauces of European consumers? What headline might The Economist put on that? Prawn destroys glacier maybe or Prawn-induced tornado tears down London house).

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 (14 – Yes, if it’s shipped with full account taken of the externalities of the transport mode, particularly the bunker fuel’s CO2 emissions and other pollutants, then why not? But when will that happen?). And the local-food movement’s aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce (15 – No they don’t silly, when did you last see coffee growing in Kent? Or cocoa pods in Slough. Get serious, I’m thinking a very low mark for you at present). But since the local-food movement looks suspiciously like old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment, helping poor countries is presumably not the point (16 – It might look that way to you, I suspect that’s your free-trade mania talking and a million food miles away from what the average Joe or Jill Public is thinking. You just lost one of your few remaining marks).

Appetite for change
The aims of much of the ethical-food movement—to protect the environment, to encourage development and to redress the distortions in global trade—are admirable. The problems lie in the means, not the ends. No amount of Fairtrade coffee will eliminate poverty, and all the organic asparagus in the world will not save the planet. (17 – That’s true. Now, I can’t remember who claimed it would. Err, oh yes, it’s coming back to me, it was you.) Some of the stuff sold under an ethical label may even leave the world in a worse state and its poor farmers poorer than they otherwise would be (18 – Though you haven’t shown a shred of evidence that that is the case. All you’ve done is to extrapolate some suppositions from one example to damn an entire movement).

So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, alas. Real change will require action by governments (19 – Oh right, and so in the meantime we should stop eating completely? Or should we blindly consume the factory farmed stuff instead. Free trade not free range, ra ra ra?), in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe’s monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market (20 – I agree with all of this but sadly it is you who are getting into “when pigs fly territory”. All of this is what governments should do whereas most of this leader has been about consumers. See point 19). Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers (21 – Which brings us to The Economist’s undefined nirvana of “proper free trade”. You need a book to answer this one. My short point is what about externalities? Don’t kid yourself that accounting for these is possible). Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world’s governments have so far failed to do. (22 – And show no sign of ever doing)

The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them. The idea of changing the world by voting with your trolley may be beguiling. But if consumers really want to make a difference, it is at the ballot box that they need to vote. (23 – A facile conclusion that no one can dispute. Shame that our political systems are so rotten that our governments can go to war in Iraq, renew nuclear missile systems, privatize everything etc. etc. without us getting a look in. If this is an argument, I’m a fairtrade banana)


5 Responses to “The Economist – a dangerous smarty pants”

  1. Daniel Simpson Says:

    The conclusion may be facile, but it’s actually on the money (boomboom). No amount of ethical consumerism is going to stop runaway climate change. Perhaps nothing can:

    That’s not an argument for doing nothing, as you rightly chide The Economist for implying with its Go Back To Work And Vote Tradist spiel. But it means that the real point of departure is in point 23, which is hardly surprising really, given that this is the focus of your website.

    I’m not sure about point 22 though. If you argue that, what’s the alternative? This isn’t a call for rose-tintedness (of a statist or anti-statist variety) – but it seems to be the crux of the Where Do We Go From Here question. Otherwise we just heap opprobrium on the Bad Guys and produce a negative version of the Economist. Which might seem positive and progressive, but doesn’t necessarily do anything other than make us feel warm inside. Like buying fair trade chocolate.

  2. Daniel Simpson Says:

    Oops, I forgot the link that was supposed to go at the end of the first paragraph:,,1970833,00.html

  3. Desiree Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Desiree here from last ZMI. Greetings from Canada.

    Great blog… informative with out the “dry”. Well done.

    I just want to suggest that you do more article deconstruction. I printed this one out and posted it on my office door. There was an actual crowd of people reading it at one point today. I work at a community radio station, and I’m expecting it will be used as programming fodder.

    So thanks much, and I hope you’re well.

  4. patrickchalmers Says:

    Thank you Desiree

    Happy New Year to you and yes, I’m fine thanks.

    I take your point about article deconstruction, which I should be doing anyway as research for Chapter 7 of my book. The Economist’s letters page is very small, and they have control over it, meaning that much of their more outrageous stuff goes unanswered.

    I have thought for a while that it would be worth setting up some sort of wiki site – – for example, to do this on a weekly basis. but then I got distracted with something else.

    Watch this space, but not too closely.



  5. don wreford Says:

    I have been a glass blower for nearly 30 years and took a long time to awaken to my folly regarding fuel usage, pollution and global heating, my change came about 3 years ago and I now am an adversary to this craft and recently detoured some one from this romantic notion and put him straight, my contribution to the environment is to purchase no clothes other than say underpants, I wear clothes until they wear out,I am against consumption regards to CDs, concerts, drugs, sex,travel, etc, I have no car, this is because all this stuff is using the Earth resources at an alarming rate, I do not pray as the Jews must have done, who went to their deaths in 2nd WW,having prayed not to die in these circumstances, and these pleas were either ignored or otherwise by the above,I do believe in the mysteries of life such as why was I born in this configuration, I am against patriarchy and unbridled authority over my destiny, one of the mysteries that is a constant vexation to my spirit is the overwhelming arrogance and corruption that I witness daily, it is beyond comprehension, from the man in the street to the highest establishment that exists in society today, the brain conditioning to play a particular song that complies to the elite is auspicious, dismantling the mechanics of all this is a grand task that the individual may live long enough to achieve freedom and responsibility in following the path, my empathy goes out to all of those oppressed by the first World, it is my belief that by assisting the 3rd World, our standard of living will not decline but increase, it is fear driven that if Africa has a better standard of living, will pose a threat to the West, this is the fear of the black having an alignment with the dark forces, the elites of this World are not going to give up their privileged mind sick attitudes, as this fear has indoctrinated these people over the course of a few thousand years, it is time to wake up from the prejudices that having engulfed for so long, I know their are black holes in the Universe and other such frightening ordeals, at this moment we are not dealing with this problem, their are other more pressing problems that we need to deal with and the solutions such as Greenspans idea, is no good as he is just part of the plot to confound us, he was always a moron, and many knew this, we have to get rid of these imbeciles that are for the present holding our destiny for the worst in their hands. don wreford.

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