This week's Economist has one of the best and most succinct 'debunkings' of ethical food I have ever read. The article in question is here (available only to subscribers to the print edition), but a brief summary of what it says is roughly as follows:
Organic food may be produced without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, but conventional agriculture requires much more land to produce a given quantity of food and has been the driving force, throughout history, for deforestation. The harsh reality is that not all of the world's population could be fed adequately using organic farming methods. The eco-lobby is silent on this important aspect.
Farmers get paid more because such products are sold at a higher price, but because these commodities are often wildly in surplus the prevailing market price tends to be low. By propping up the price, Fairtrade encourages farmers to grow more, rather than diversifying in other crops, so depressing prices further. Fairtrade tends to achieve in the medium- and long-term exactly the opposite of what was intended. On the other hand it gives rich consumers the smug impression their generosity is helping to give farmers a better life, when what it usually does is tie these farmers into the production of low-value commodities.
Sounds logical, when first looked at. However, more people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer's market and almost half of all 'food miles' involve cars going to/from the shops. When, in addition, the energy used in production as well as transport is calculated, local food may in fact be even less 'green' than most people imagine. Producing lamb in Britain is far more energy-intensive than producing the same meat in New Zealand, apparently and the aims of the 'local produce' movement in any case contradict the whole notion of Fairtrade, because it discourages us from buying produce from poor countries. In fact the 'local produce' market looks suspiciously like protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment.
Summing up, the Economist article suggests that concerned consumers in the rich world need to use the power of their votes to force action by their governments by introducing a global carbon tax and reform (genuine reform, that is) of the world trading system and by abolishing farm subsidies to allow poor-country farmers to compete on a level playing-field. Free trade in other words.