Last month, the influential British newsweekly The Economist took the measure of the sustainable-food movement and found it wanting.

“There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three of the most popular varieties of ‘ethical food’: organic food, fair-trade food, and local food,” the journal declared, and proceeded to subject each to withering analysis.

Don’t put the cart before the voice.

Photo: iStockphoto

Like an uncle emboldened by wine at the holiday table, The Economist sought the role of truth-teller to the complacent and self-satisfied. “People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits,” the magazine lectured.

The coverage sparked a mini-sensation in sustainable-food circles, peppering blogs and listservs for weeks. My inbox groaned with emails alerting me to the phenomenon. In person, some people brought it up in a tone almost of condolence. Shame about how local food doesn’t really work, they said, and didn’t need to say the rest: given that you’ve devoted your life to it.

The Economist occupies a unique niche within U.S. media. Unlike homegrown weeklies like Time and Newsweek, the venerable British journal doesn’t pretend to be objective. It champions European-style liberalism: capitalism fettered only by minimal and carefully considered government intervention.

The magazine’s admirable openness about its biases confers on it an authority that must be envied by its U.S. counterparts. While Time and Newsweek frantically chase relevance (and straying readers) by devoting cover after cover to celebrities and God — the ultimate celebrity, perhaps — The Economist has emerged as the thinking person’s weekly in the U.S., read by academics, policy wonks, politicians, and corporate decision-makers across a broad political spectrum.

Thus when The Economist arrays its considerable cultural clout against one’s pet movement, it pays to take note. Has the sustainable-food movement been right and well debunked? Should we stop “voting with our trolleys” (British for shopping carts) and learn to love industrial food?

As The Economist itself has put it in countless articles: not so fast.

The Other Side of the Story

The magazine opens its critique by implying that the sustainable-food movement has abandoned politics in favor of enlightened consumerism. “Voter turnout in most developed countries has fallen in recent decades, but sales of organic, fair-trade, and local food — each with its own political agenda — are growing fast,” the magazine reveals.

This is an odd juxtaposition. Are shopping at the farmers’ market and voting mutually exclusive acts? By doing the former, are you absolved from the need to do the latter? If you think so, consider your argument eviscerated. The magazine demonstrates with convincing force that consumer choice alone won’t solve the environmental and social depredations of industrial food.

The problem, though, is that few in the movement hold that position. To be sure, there may be people who think they’re saving the planet by piling their shopping carts high at Whole Foods. But the great thrust of the food-politics movement is, well, extremely political.

Take the Los Angeles-based Community Food Security Coalition, arguably the most effective nationwide sustainable-food group. Its annual conferences draw hundreds of people from across the country who are doing the nuts-and-bolts work of reestablishing local food networks, through inner-city farming, farmers’ markets in low-income areas, and other initiatives.

At the two CFSC conferences I attended over the past five years, I heard little rhetoric about how we could shop our way out of our food problems. Instead, the farm bill — the federal government’s twice-a-decade commitment of largesse to agribusiness — dominated discussion. The CFSC’s broad coalition of food-justice advocates hardly embody the idea that “the supermarket trolley has dethroned the ballot box,” as The Economist so cheekily put it.

The sustainable-food movement’s very DNA is shot through with a commitment to political engagement. “Eat responsibly,” declared Wendell Berry in his seminal 1990 essay “The Pleasures of Eating.” By that, he didn’t mean blithely hop into the SUV and head to a national supermarket chain to pick up a pricey bag of anonymously grown organic salad, as The Economist‘s caricature would have it.

Instead, Berry urged people to become active participants in food production. He hoped that by gaining knowledge about where food comes from, people would become more, not less, politically engaged. The feel-good consumerism skewered by The Economist has little to do with Berry’s influential ethos of knowing and active participation — an intellectual tradition that thrives today in the work of Michael Pollan and other writers.

If The Economist‘s overriding premise — that the sustainable-food movement has decayed into a sort of self-congratulating shopping club — is fundamentally ridiculous, it doesn’t do much better on the particulars.

To make the case that organic farming threatens tropical rainforests, the magazine trots out Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, perhaps industrial agriculture’s greatest apologist. Borlaug, a sort of anti-Wendell Berry, spearheaded the Green Revolution movement, financed by U.S. foundations, to promote the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers by farmers in the global south.

Borlaug’s efforts have incited bitter controversy in agricultural and social-policy circles, but you’d never know that from The Economist, which cites him without question to support the notion that conventional farming delivers higher yields than organic. “The more intensively you farm, Mr. Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest,” The Economist states, with an air of “case closed.”

But is chemical-dependent farming really more productive than organic? Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic Inc., debunked that claim in a recent comment on Gristmill. Fromartz points out that chemical farming may churn out more food per acre under ideal conditions, but over the long term — including drought periods — the yield difference dwindles. Moreover, pummeling the soil with chemicals may eventually sap land of any productivity at all. As Fromartz points out, India — which bought Borlaug’s Green Revolution package wholesale, and is often cited as one of the effort’s great successes — is now experiencing a severe soil- and water-depletion crisis.

The Economist‘s scolding of consumers who strive to “buy local” is scarcely more convincing. For one, the magazine ludicrously attempts to paint such efforts as “protectionist,” which implies a resort to government power. But in the United States, at least, I know of no one calling for the erection of trade barriers against foreign-produced food. The U.S. market is currently flooded with cheap garlic grown in China. Is an individual consumer being protectionist by opting to pay a premium to buy garlic from a local farmer? How so, precisely?

And on what grounds does this journal, which exists to champion free choice in free markets, denounce consumers for exercising that power?

The Root of the Problem

More fundamentally, the magazine’s contention that food hauled in from long distances burns less energy than locally produced food rests on shaky ground. The piece cites a British government report, concluding that “a shift toward a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains, and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being traveled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.”

True enough, no doubt, in the U.S. as much as in the U.K. But in the U.S., at least, government policy for at least 50 years has decisively favored consolidation [PDF] of the food industry. The built environment has been explicitly rigged to facilitate the long-haul transportation of food, while local food-processing infrastructure has been dismantled. So yes, as The Economist points out, people often live closer to supermarkets than to farmers’ markets; but the answer needn’t be to boycott farmers’ markets.

Just as logically, citizens could organize to pressure local governments to invest in more farmers’ markets. If energy efficiency is the goal, such efforts could be coupled with a movement to reinvest in public transportation. And in fact, reestablishing accessible, neighborhood retail points for locally grown food is a major motivating force for groups associated with the above-mentioned Community Food Security Coalition.

But that’s not the sort of political organizing The Economist would prefer to see from food-justice advocates. The magazine wants us to return to the chain supermarkets and spend our energy instead on pushing politicians toward action in the form of “a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies.”

It’s bizarre advice, coming from a free-market magazine: severely limit your own options and ask the government to solve your problems. And while the political goals it supports are no doubt worthy, they in no way absolve citizens from the need to wrest control of their food decisions from corporations and actively create the food system they want.