Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shopping Is Not a Perfect Substitute for Politics

The New York Times has an interesting piece today on the shortcomings of organic agriculture in its current, commercialized form.  They describe vast monocultures, drawdowns of aquifers, wasteful attempts to prevent natural blemishes and deformation of vegetables, and long-distance shipping in the off-season.

A few of their criticisms are spurious; for instance, it is better ecologically to ship tomatoes and basil from Mexico to the US during the winter than to try grow them in greenhouses, and trying to persuade consumers to remove such things from their diet for half the year is not a reasonable strategy.  Nevertheless it is quite true that an organic label does not guarantee that the agriculture that brought the food to your table is sustainable, ecologically or socially.

The roots of the problem lie with the idea that agriculture can be fixed by establishing labels like organic or fair trade, so that shopping does the work of social change.  Of course, shopping can be better or worse.  You can have no labels at all and drift inexorably to the lowest common denominator in all aspects of food production outside the purview of the consumer.  Or you can have labels like the ones we have today and give shoppers a choice in how much social responsibility they want to trade off for price, product differentiation or other consumerly objectives.

Don’t expect these labels to do everything, however.  They have to be kept simple and standardized, so they can’t address all the practices that arise in different environmental conditions.  Also, they are assigned to production on a producer-by-producer basis, so they can’t take into account the interactions at a regional or sectoral level.  For instance, even if it were possible to insert language about sustainable water withdrawals into the organic standards, what constitutes sustainable depends on what other users sharing the same groundwater resources are doing.  An individual farm may simply be the wrong unit of observation.

Real solutions require regulation and coordination, stuff like water and soil conservation districts.  Reducing the burning of fossil fuels in food production and distribution requires a systematic control over carbon emissions, such as the permit system I’ve pushed in the past (such as here and here).  And better labor practices require better labor laws and healthy unions to enforce them.  You shouldn’t expect shopping to take care of all this.

So why is all the burden placed on labeling and consumerism?  Because we’ve given up on politics, at least for now.  If you don’t think the rules of the game can be changed through collective action, all you’ve got left is shopping.  But remind yourself from time to time that this is duct tape, not real repair.

No comments: