Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Economics of Eco-friendly Food

I originally wrote this for my American Environmental Issues class at Stetson University. It refers to a text I got for the class but have been quite enamored of, Sustainable Planet.

NB: The "opinion" tag marks this as something that I haven't really researched. In this case, I just read an essay and wrote a response offhand. Comments with references to related material are welcome.

In his essay “Be A Local Hero” in Sustainable Planet, Mark Ritchie makes a case for eco-friendly food. He describes the principles behind the movement, the reasons for its recent growth in popularity, and gives several examples of communities that have use local food production to fuel new kinds of economies. Towards the end, however, Ritchie discusses the roadblocks that governments have put in place that prevent this movement of “sustainable local food systems” from reaching its full potential (105). For example, NAFTA and the WTO “have put highly restrictive conditions on the use of consumer labeling to promote locally oriented sustainable food systems” (106). Similarly, the USDA “is attempting to redefine the term ‘organic’ so factory farms can easily meet weak standards” (107). What this means, Ritchie laments, is that “[c]onsumers cannot easily distinguish or discriminate between the product of careful stewards of the land and those who are destroying the planet” (107).

This, I believe, reveals the real motive behind so-called “free market” economics. Funnily enough for someone with such liberal tendencies as myself, I believe that the market really can induce changes in the way our food impacts the environment. This is because consumers who are aware of where their food comes from and what its production involves will choose (I believe) to make more environmentally friendly choices. However, the people in charge of the WTO and USDA apparently have a different idea of the power of the market. By making it nearly impossible for consumers to know what’s what, they remove this “power of the market” from the system. They apparently believe not in market forces (which, markets having traditionally been where goods were bought and sold, I interpret to mean “consumer-level”) but rather industry forces (at the level of production). Industry will respond to consumer demand, of course, but it will take an excruciatingly long time in the absence of consumer education and ability to distinguish between environmentally friendly and harmful products.

If eco-friendly food is to have any chance of making a name for itself in the face of the might of industrial agriculture, the 2007 Farm Bill is going to have to include some serious changes to the backwards policy Ritchie mentions, including an informative-labeling policy and removal of subsidies for factory food.

For more green food information, visit The Ethicurean.

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