Why are so many attempts to eat ethically counterproductive?
News that sales of organic products in the UK rose by 12.9% in 2020 will please most people interested in sustainable food production. (Organic sceptics will of course be less pleased.) But this statistic was accompanied by a less cheerful one: the amount of land being used for organic production only rose by 2.4% in the previous year, while the amount in the process of converting to organic fell by 14.7%.
The inescapable upshot, as the Soil Association’s Chief executive Helen Browning said, is that “much of the future growth in the overall market will be met by imports”. That’s more food miles and more greenhouse gas emissions. For some foods at least, British consumers who try to buy more sustainable food could actually be purchasing the less sustainable option.
These kinds of paradoxes are not new. There are certain general principles we use to determine how sustainable food is, generally favouring SOL food: seasonable, organic, local. But there are countless examples of where this rule of thumb breaks down. Because some food can be produced much more easily in some climates and soils than others, even when you factor in transport costs, imports can have less environmental impact.
The carbon footprint of a bag of chips in London, for example, is usually lower if the potatoes come from Lincolnshire than if they come from just outside the capital. Butter and lamb from New Zealand is also better for the planet than local alternatives in many parts of the world (how green can Emirati milk be?), helped by the fact that container shipping is much more efficient than many assume.
As with most things we call paradoxes, there is no logical puzzle to unpick here. The semblance of a paradox emerges only if you mistake reasonably good general rules for exceptionalness universal laws. Sustainability is complex and you’d be hard pressed to find any examples of a farming practice that is always better or worse than any given alternative. Context is all.
But perhaps the deeper problem is the temptation to think that these paradoxes need to be solved by consumers. If you buy a lot of organic food (full disclosure, I do) then you are kidding yourself if you think this is solving the problems of the worst kinds of industrial agriculture. Organic food and drink accounts for a mere 1.3 cent of the total UK market. Even off we could maintain the historically high 12.9% growth in organics recorded last year, it would take decades for organics to become a major part of the country’s food production.
To focus too much on organics would be a mistake anyway. It bears repeating that “organic” and “sustainable” are not synonyms. Organics is just one system, a highly specific, regulated and certified one that doesn’t suit many producers. Many consumers like it because the label confers certain guarantees. But if we knew the full stories behind all the food we ate, we would find ourselves making finer distinctions between everything lumped together as non-organic. For example, there are many really good, high-welfare, pasture reared cattle herds in the country but if they’re not organic, you have no way of distinguishing their meat and dairy products from those that come from cows kept indoors for most of the year, fattened on soy.
Given these complexities, it is clear that we cannot consume our way to a more sustainable food system. Government action is essential, at both national and transnational levels. Farmers need incentives to adopt best practice and market forces simply aren’t providing enough. Right now, government is failing to play its part.
For example, we cannot expect farmers to undertake the lengthy and often costly transition to more sustainable systems unless they can be sure their efforts will be rewarded. The change in the subsidy schemes resulting from Brexit could be an opportunity to put these incentives in place. But we still don’t know what the post-Brexit regime will look like. As Browning says, “There’s little detail for UK farm businesses to plan against. Many farmers will be watching and waiting before deciding the shape of their future businesses.”
The most pressing Sustainable Food Paradox is not that seasonal, organic and local sometimes work against each other, or that sometimes the most sutabale food doesn’t tick any of these boxes at all. It’s that we keep thinking that the challenge is to persuade more people to buy sustainable food when the real problem is that we have to get farmers to produce it. The better food system we need is one in which even those who don’t give the environment a second thought find themselves buying food that is sustainable anyway. To get there, we need conscientious consumers to also be concerned citizens, pressuring governments to change.
This article is part of a series on Modern Paradoxes
Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)