January 30, 2008

Unedible philosophical transactions

To those who prefer paternalistic philosophical transactions to free commercial transactions between consenting adults, Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B has something to offer. B. Gail Smith writes in Developing sustainable food supply chains:
Local food supply chains are often considered to be relatively sustainable partly because they support 'mixed' and organic farming and reduce emissions and externalities created by long-distance transport and high 'food miles'. Local food supply chains are also valued for their capacity to generate rural enterprise and regenerate rural communities, break agribusiness monopolies and create spiritual links between man and nature. [I edited out the literature references here and below.]
My take: Imported food supply chains are even better because they support industrial farming and reduce emissions and externalities created by "mixed" and organic farming. Imported food supply chains are also good because they undermine local rural lobbies and help to restore local natural areas, enhance innovation and make food cheaper, more convenient and often tastier.
Since production often exceeds demand for traditional food commodities, [imported food] prices tend to be low, unstable and declining, making commodity-based foodstuffs (e.g. bread, sugar, rice and beverages) available to consumers from all sectors of society, but having catastrophic impact on the lives of farmers when prices fall dramatically.
I am as sorry for those farmers as I am for former producers of writing machines.
Food businesses influence consumers by choosing which foods to make available and promote, by advertising, packaging, product placement and pricing.
Consumers influence food business by choosing which foods they buy; this results in entertaining advertising, attractive packaging, convenient product placing and low prices.
Consumers deserve accurate and informative labelling and nutritional information to be made available to them, for example on carelines, websites and in leaflets available in-store, in order to make informed dietary choices.
I agree, and I also support the trade of non-labeled products to satisfy those consumers who do not want labels. Labeling can be very problematic, by the way. See what Smith regards as informative labeling:
Trust can be based [...] around a credible human 'face' (such as a local dairy farmer or a coffee farmer who can send her children to school owing to Fairtrade prices) presented on packaging [...]. Many consumers recognize [...] some brands and retailers, for example 'Fairtrade' (International), 'Max Havelaar' (The Netherlands) and the Co-operative Retail Organization (UK), as ethically based.
In those cases a truly informative label would tell consumers that fair-trade practices probably result in fewer coffee farmers being able to send their children to school, and are anything but ethical, as recognized even by capuchin monkeys.
The emphasis of many governmental and civil society organizations is now to demand that manufacturers and retailers act as responsible corporate citizens and use a mixture of science, business rationale, politics and emotion to assess the right course of action rather than just making appropriate products available and encouraging consumers to 'buy green'.
In other words, businesses should join the ranks of clerics and bioethicists, and consumers should retreat to the responsibilities of kindergarten life.

Gail Smith works for a very big food and cosmetics firm. She cites its name several times in her paper. Her proposals have the flavor of her firm's marketing strategy. It looks like Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B is just running an advertisement.

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