The following is the letter we sent to the Economist in response to their Dec 13 2006 article "Voting with your trolley" and the accompanying editorial and front cover "Good Food"? We await publication...

Ethical Food - Dealing with the Dilemmas

While I agree that we cant solve all food ills at the checkout and that there are contradictions and tensions with each of the labels, your arguments claiming that organic/Fairtrade/local are doing more harm than good were based on extremely selective elements.

1. Organic farming does not take more space. If you calculate the footprint (ie include the inputs and dealing with the unwanted outputs) of conventional food, it takes 6 times the land area of UK to feed Britain.

2. Fairtrade does not exacerbate overproduction. The plight of the coffee farmers was caused primarily because the World Bank bankrolled Vietnamese farmers to switch to coffee and flood the world market. And quite how Fairtrade coffee, bananas & cocoa undermines UK farmers beggars belief. Global warming has enabled the UK to produce apricots, but I haven’t heard about bananas just yet.

3. Local food (especially out of season) does sometimes require more energy, but food miles are more than energy. There are the equivalent of 20 Niles worth of water air-freighted across the world - mainly from underdeveloped countries, each year.

But your biggest mistake is to invoke free trade as the answer – when it is the core problem. Do economists not read the commodities page everyday and notice that when there is a good harvest/supply the price goes down and when there is scarcity the price goes up? The law of supply and demand dictates this. This is hardly an inducement for investment. More food results in cheap food – hence poorly paid workers and degraded environment. But this still not cheap enough for the 820 million people who will go hungry this year, despite years of the Green Revolution producing ‘more’ food. We don’t want ‘more’ food, we want ‘more sustainable’ food – that which is healthier for people and the planet.

There is a way forward that is neither individualistic nor party political, but collective. Big organisations – both public and private, can set standards that take account of this mixture of concerns. And to see how - google “sustainable food” for the No1 site worldwide.

Dr Charlie Clutterbuck

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