Got Cheap Milk?

First World food fetishes such as locavorism and organics are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, become a globally conscious grocery buyer, says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Perhaps it is psychologically better to have close contact with the people who grow your food, but that doesn't make it good for the environment.

  • For example, it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers.

  • It is four times more energy efficient for them to eat lamb shipped from the other side of the world than it is to eat British lamb.

  • That's because transporting the final product accounts for only a small part of the energy consumed in the production and delivery of food, and it's far better to eat foods from places where production itself is more efficient.

  • For example, New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed – which itself is often imported.

    And the environmental benefits of organic in terms of lower energy costs and less pollution?

  • Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, estimated that we would need 5 billion to 6 billion additional cows to produce enough natural fertiliser to sustain our current crop production – which, of course, would increase the demand for forage crops and thus the need for agricultural land.

  • Meanwhile, weed-killing herbicides allow for no-till farming.

  • When you don't plough, you don't erode topsoil nearly as much – so it doesn't end up being washed into rivers, leaving behind a dust bowl.

  • Whether organic is as efficient as conventional farming – in terms of land yield, energy or labour productivity – depends on the place and the crop.

  • But even organic sympathisers report that the average land yield in the industrial world is about 8 per cent lower on organic farms than on conventional ones.

    There are still as many as 1 billion people worldwide who are malnourished; and many are living on around a dollar a day. The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb.

    Source: Charles Kenny, Got Cheap Milk? Foreign Policy, September 12, 2011.

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    First published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, United States

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 28 September 2011
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