Friday, September 7, 2012

Organic Foods and Moral Provenance

A recent study out of Stanford finds little documentable nutritional value for organic foods.  As reported by NPR, the metastudy found no impact in individuals' actual health based on eating organic and that the nutritional benefits of specific vegetables grown organically is lost in the vast range of nutrient levels found in all supermarket vegetables.

One of the folks interviewed on NPR remarked that this didn't change his view and that he would continue buying organic anyway.

Indeed, the premium paid for organic foods is a clear instance of what James Foster and I term "moral provenance," valuing an item not just on its utility but the social conditions in which it was produced and distributed.

Speaking of provenance calls to mind Bordeaux wine and Parma ham and fine art.  Yet, there are many sorts of provenance, signaling moral values, ecological externalities, identity, and other elements as well as quality, taste, and authenticity.  The notion of “fair trade” as well as “union made” is based on provenance.  eBay’s seller rating system is so successful because it can provide some assurance of provenance in the context of anonymous, distant, and likely one-time transactions.  Even the mortgage backed derivative crisis of 2008 and beyond comes back to an issue of provenance (and bad and misleading provenancing of underlying securities).  

Moral provenance refers to the social conditions embedded in a commodity chain and the social, economic, and environmental externalities implicated in transactions; that is to say, moral provenance represents the non-supply-and-demand values encoded in the value chain.  Moral provenance manifests itself in consumer behavior in a willingness to pay a premium for positive externalities and to punish companies for (perceived and actual) negative externalities. 

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