Biting words

Strangely, The Economist free-marketeers now want us to ditch ethical buying for political action

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You’d think the Economist would want to distance itself at this time of year from the Scrooge beliefs behind its creation in the 1840s. But instead, the unregulated-market brats there have used their pre-holiday issue to publish a lead editorial on “why ethical food harms the planet.”

The Economist, a mag read by some of the world’s most influential people, features accomplished writers who nevertheless go nameless so’s not to steal any glory from The (capital T) one and only true god, which goes by the name of The Economist lest any think there are many Economists.

But the logic of the editorial is going to cause some whiplash among those who’ve trusted the British weekly as the fountainhead of neo-liberalism and leading opponent of state action. That’s because, despite the obvious digs at the organic movement, the piece actually promotes the politicization of eco-food issues.

“The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive,” the editors write. Many greens are saying “Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarket trolley instead.” Alas, The editorial sighs, “Sadly, it’s not that easy.”

The moralizing gets harsh. “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,” the sworn opponents of the “nanny state” proclaim.

Then comes The conclusion, the kind of words I’ve held back from saying for fear people would think me a radical idealist. “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.”

Politicians should take note, The editorial wraps up, but then so should shoppers take note of politics, because “if consumers really want to make a difference, it is at the ballot box that they need to vote.” Right-onsky. The times, or at least the political positionings, they are a-changin’.

But there’s still some research The Economists need to do. The mag laments the double standard of labelling some foods as organic and fair trade but not others equally worthy of being flagged, such as “no-till,” meaning the ag product was grown without soil-harming ploughing.

Of course, “no-till” would be a powerful label, but no-till methods are often used on no-name products, mainly soy, that no one knows is a cheap filler in the product they’re buying.

More to the point, no-till is sometimes code for genetically engineered. Farmers don’t have to till the ground to get rid of weeds because GE seeds produce a plant that can withstand an otherwise lethal dose of pesticides. And it’s not the alternative labellers but the GE industry that refuses to even identify, let alone label.

The magazine also touts the obsolete dogma of Norman Borlaug, the evangelist for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and the 1950s “green revolution.” (Too bad no overzealous green thought to trademark that name to keep it out of the hands of such nozzleheads and pesticidiacs.)

The unanticipated consequence of buying organics, the Borlaug-dogma-infected Economist argues, is that farming will require three times the space it now does to feed the world, forcing us to destroy the rainforest and much else so we can grow grain.

Stay calm, Economists, The Organics people have figured this out 15 ways from Sunday. They’ve got a barnful of techniques, among them growing companion crops together so that one supplies the nitrogen. As well, The Vegetarians have shown that half the grains in the world are used to fatten livestock and boost heart disease.

The Economist also takes a swat at local, the latest and most potent of the food alternatives, claiming more energy is expended in local food travelling by small truck from farm to city, only to be picked up by a shopper in a big car, than in food shipped halfway around the world. Likewise, it’s alleged that there’s more energy in a local greenhouse tomato than in one grown with solar power in a field and then shipped 2,000 miles to a store.

Fellas, if you want to get into politics and system change, you have to know what you’re talking about. Waste heat (co-generated) and heat from composting can be used in greenhouses, and foods that are grown near home can be preserved or eaten seasonally. Street markets and mainstreet stores can revive shopping that’s not car-dependent, if only the politicians would stop subsidizing malls another political project for our new Economistas.

But I’m griping about small potatoes. As Gandhi used to say about the process of change, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” It’s great to have The Economist in The Fight. Happy New Year.

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