Saturday, 9 December 2006

Ideology trumps journalism in BBC debate on “ethical shopping”

You know you’ve touched a raw nerve when everybody attacks you. So Kendra Okonski discovered when she was interviewed on the BBC this morning. The Environment Programme Director at the International Policy Network had been invited to appear to discuss a report in The Economist about the contradictions within the ethical shopping industry.

According to The Economist, organic production is less intensive than production that relies on chemical fertiliser, and so requires more land. Thus a greater reliance on organic production would require turning more of our natural environment into cultivated farmland. Ms. Okonski noted on the BBC that UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimate that to turn the world’s farming over to organic production would require additionally farming an area of natural habitat size of South America.

“Fair Trade” is equally misguided. While it may demonstrate a caring heart that a consumer buys a product at above the market price and transfers the premium to the poor farmer, this is nothing more than a form of charity channelled through the purchase of tea, coffee or some other commodity. Prices are low because of overproduction – there is a glut of coffee on world markets, for example. “Fair Trade” encourages farmers to continue to supply an over-produced commodity where they would be better off shifting to producing different commodities. This further depresses the price, hurting those farmers not receiving the so-called “fair” price.

As for the new fad for locally produced food, as over half the “food miles” added to UK food production are generated by the purchaser, and most people live nearer the supermarket than the farmer’s market, buying locally can actually result in adding more food miles to a product. Furthermore, farming locally is inefficient: it uses less energy to raise lamb in New Zealand and fly it to the UK than to raise it in Britain, because farming in New Zealand is less energy intensive. The fad for local food is actually old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as ethical shopping.

The Economist has always produced articles under its title without naming contributors. Thus we have no idea whether Ms. Okonski contributed to the report. The BBC invited her to comment on the report, however, so one would have expected her to be treated neutrally. Sadly, it was not to be. Both Ms. Okonski and the Economist had clearly hit upon a sensitive subject at Broadcasting House. After her first comment, BBC presenter Susanna Reid flatly contradicted her: “No!” she said, dismissing Ms. Okonski’s opinion, before arguing the counter case. As the BBC had also invited another speaker to put the supposedly ethical case, this was unnecessary; Ms. Reid’s role was to facilitate the debate rather than take sides.

At the close of the item, Ms. Reid was seen to pull what one can only assume was her “What was all that about?” face, before moving on to advertise the following programme, Saturday Kitchen. There, chef James Martin – who was drafted into the programme after the infinitely superior Anthony Worrall Thompson defected to ITV – and his two guests proceeded also to rubbish the evidence and research of international institutions, think tanks and the media. Presuming that neither Mr. Martin nor his fellow chefs have a PhD in Environmental Science or several years experience in a research institute, one can only assume that they were pontificating about something of which they knew nothing.

If consumers are to make choices that are really environmentally conscious and serve the interests of the world’s poor, they need to be better informed. This requires serious debate. Sadly, serious debate is difficult on the BBC when the ill-informed but nonetheless entrenched opinions of its staff are challenged. Universal condemnation often confronts those who make unorthodox and challenging suggestions. The more roundly these new ideas are condemned, the more carefully they should be examined.

1 comment:

Tristan said...

The thing is, the Economist has challenged the common view, which always gets a vitriolic response.

See Tim Worstall's article on it, there's quite a few comments which veer towards the hysterical - especially one which claims that economics is a religion not based upon facts... (which coming from someone who denies evidence is a bit rich...)