If you're one of those querulous old mossbacks who feels that the gospel of renunciation has had no worthy evangelist since Leo Tolstoy cashed in his chips, you really ought to acquaint yourself with Joe Fattorini, a wine reviewer who currently encumbers the Glasgow Herald. Harken, my brethren and cistern, and learn how this sinful man was redeemed:
It's self-indulgent, wasteful and frankly immoral. But you know how it is. I was swept along with the trend, and it felt good at the time. But I don't want to be a hypocrite. So I'm giving up organic food in 2006.Why this agonizing reappraisal? Well, Fattorini claims that the allegedly lower crop yield from organic farms means that far more land must be used to feed the same number of people:
This year we are set to destroy some 25,000 sq km of Brazilian rainforest, but that will have to increase dramatically.He goes on to suggest that a global switch to organic farming - a very improbable event - would force us to turn our national parks into farmlands and raze the rainforests. And even then, we'd doom 200 million people to starvation.
In fact, crop yield studies are inconclusive, but some suggest strongly that organic farming is at least competitive. Other studies have shown that organic yields are higher than those of conventional crops under drought conditions, and are less variable in general.
Though Fattorini doesn't see fit to explain where his statistics come from, he does offer this tantalizing hint:
As the distinguished Indian plant biologist CS Prakash put it: "The only thing sustainable about organic farming in the developing world is that it sustains poverty and malnutrition."Fattorini fails to mention that the "distinguished Indian plant biologist CS Prakash" is a rabid biotech zealot whose organization AgBioWorld has interesting ties to Monsanto and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Fattorini's tone, his unsourced "facts," and his heavy-handed deployment of race- and class-based arguments all reek of Prakash, and I'd be amazed if that's not who he's cribbing his facts and figures from. Many of Prakash's arguments have been counted, weighed, and found wanting, and I won't address them here. Instead, I'd like to make a more basic point about how class tensions are exploited - hypocritically, natch - by anti-organic polemicists like Fattorini.
Using a gambit that's increasingly popular among "lifestyle" journalists who cater to upscale readers, Fattorini informs us that buying organic food is a "bourgeois fad" and a "middle-class indulgence." He complains, too, that it's unacceptably prevalent among the lower classes, who have no business paying premium prices for foodstuffs:
This is no better than the parents who splash out on home cinemas and games consoles for themselves, leaving scant money to spend bringing up their children properly.This sort of puritanical scolding is curious, coming as it does from a man whose calling in life is to write a weekly column on wine appreciation. You probably won't be surprised to learn that when it comes to that heart-gladdening beverage, Fattorini sings a somewhat different tune:
Joe Fattorini, The Herald's wine expert, said: "There is now a new generation of consumers – many of them young professional women who like expensive things, especially Champagne – and they're buying lots of it. Majestic has been very cleverly selling to broader market trends....Broadly, the wine trade has been men who like to look for new, unusual, distinctive things but women don't want to read a load of books to find out about wine, they like to have a brand or something familiar that they can build on. What Majestic have succeeded in doing is getting people to 'walk up the ladder' from brands they know, to more expensive, higher quality products."It seems that in some cases, Fattorini finds "bourgeois fads" perfectly acceptable, and the people who cater to them worthy of real admiration. Wine is a "middle-class indulgence" if anything is, and the land that produces it could certainly be turned to the production of food crops. Fattorini asks us how we'd go about explaining to the global poor that we must let them starve so that we can have more "natural" foods, but he apparently feels no need to justify growing wine grapes on land that could otherwise provide food to the starving.
Nor should he, given that insufficient production of food isn't actually the cause of global hunger. Organic farming doesn't starve people any more than vineyards do. Fittorani complains about organic farmers' inefficient use of land, but that criticism could be more reasonably leveled against industrial cattle farms, which provide a woefully small return on the required investment of water, land, and energy (and that's before you factor in externalities like water pollution and increased antibiotic resistance).
Further, he refuses to consider that production inputs are often higher in conventional farming, thanks to the use of synthetic fertilizers, for instance:
The manufacture of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer consumes a tremendous amount of fossil fuel, representing about 30% of a conventional farm's energy consumption. University of Kentucky researchers attributed 42% of the energy cost of corn production to nitrogen fertilizer, compared to 29% for drying the grain and only 7% for plowing and disking the field.All in all, Fattorini's thinking is typical. He scrutinizes products and processes that claim to be "sustainable," and damns them as bourgeois affectations that crucify the poor and wreck the environment. Having done so, he returns complacently to championing a status quo that crucifies the poor and wrecks the environment. Once he's worked himself into a state of righteous wrath by imagining some possible world in which organic farming has destroyed the rainforests, he can shrug off the actual destruction of the rainforests by industrial agriculture. Science, Fattorini claims, will improve conventional agribusiness in years to come; the idea that it could also improve, say, nitrogen management in organic farming, thereby blowing his already dubious objections out of the water, seems not to have occurred to him.
Finally, adding insult to injury, he proposes that his confused thinking constitutes some sort of moral clarion call for the rest of us. Apparently, ignorance loves company even more than misery does.