Monday, November 19, 2007

Monday Marketing Memo: Local Foods

Does the 'buy local, eat local' philosophy and strategy conflict with assisting farmers in developing nations who've joined the organic and fair trade agricultural movements?

As our readers know, we write frequently (and generally positively) about the buying and eating locally trend and movement in the Western world, including in the U.S. and UK.
However, we also aren't shy about pointing out the limits of "buy local, eat local," in addition to what we believe is a fact: that peoples from all over the world benefit in the main culturally, economically, socially and politically from buying and eating foods produced in other countries as a way to learn about and better understand others.
Advocating the buying and eating of local foods exclusively is a pre-global worldview in our analysis and opinion. It leaves no room for the many important variables and other crucial aspects of environmental sustainability in a world getting smaller.

Over the weekend, we read a thought provoking analysis and opinion piece on the issue in the San Francisco Chronicle written by William G. Mosely, an associate professor of geography at Macalester College in St, Paul Minn. In his piece in yesterday's Chronicle, Dr. Mosely, who's the author of the book "Hanging by a thread: Cotton, Globalization and Poverty in Africa," posits that the "buy local, eat local" movement has negative consequences in its purest form for farmers in the developing world who've joined the organic and fair trade movements.

As an example of this dilemma, Dr. Mosely, who works with third world farmers, sites a recent event in the UK. Recently, the UK Soil Improvement Association, a nonprofit group that supports sustainable and organic farming, called on the British government to restrict imports of organic produce brought in by air, arguing that the food miles the air-lifted organic fruits and veggies traveled were too many, creating too great of a carbon footprint. In a concession to the fair trade movement, this group would allow for imports from countries actively seeking to promote organic and fair trade markets within their own borders. Despite this concession, Dr. Mosely writes, British fair trade activists are worried.

We aren't sure, nor is Dr. Mosely, if the British government will ultimately pass such a ban. However, the mere proposal and serious discussion of the issue points out the potential conflicts "buy local, eat local" and organic and fair trade can have. This is particularly true since much of the fair trade efforts are aimed at improving the lives of farmers in developing countries. And one way of improving these farmers lives, in addition to paying them more for their crops, is to market some of their foodstuffs in the developed west where it can be sold for more money, returning these profits to the farmers.

In his piece, Dr. Mosely also argues the idea that developing countries should merely create local markets for their crops rather than exporting some of them is a false alternative. He says European and American demand for fair trade products from Africa is surging. These channels are not only bringing a decent return to the third world farmers but also providing and promoting better working conditions and the reduced use of agri-chemicals for these farmers.

Dr. Mosely's concerned that if what he calls the local food craze gets out of hand, it will condemn third world farmers to commodity crop production and ruin their hopes of better returns by continuing to grow and export organic and fair trade fresh fruits and vegetables, along with coffee, cocoa and other similar crops. He isn't anti-local. Rather, in the piece he calls for reason and judgement on the issues.

"While the local food craze is well and good," Dr. Mosely writes, "we should not be so quick to denounce organic and fair trade foods that are imported from the developing world." By shunning these products, we do not encourage local markets to flourish in these countries, but we condemn these farmers to the ills of conventional production for the global market."

Dr. Mosely brings up an important central issue in his piece we believe. That issue is the failure to look at the whole by many rather than the sum of its parts. The whole in this case is economic, environmental and social sustainability globally vis-a-vis food production. The sum of the parts are the organic, fair trade, buy and eat local and other individual movements. To us, the goal should be to integrate all of these food production and marketing sustainability paradigms and systems into one sustainable piece or system. Such a system needs to balance things like eating local with the goals of organic production and fair trade globally, along with numerous other issues.

As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, there are cultural, social, economic and political benefits to nations from importing and exporting food to each other. Developed countries can use food importation as a way to better the standard of living of developing world farmers, as fair trade activists have set their sights on doing. Culturally, learning and sharing other's cuisines and foods is an important first step to social and political understanding.

We agree with the goal of reducing food miles. However, within this reduction must be room for reasonable importation and exportation of crops, foods and related goods for the central reasons we describe above. We agree with Dr. Mosely that the goals of environmental sustainability and assisting developing world farmers don't have to be mutually exclusive. We encourage others--especially "buy local, eat local" activists--to read Dr. Mosely's piece and to think about the issue in a comprehensive, global sustainability sense.

1 comment:

steve said...

Let's also not forget that not all food miles are equal. Food shipped by slow boat over 1000's of miles has a dramatically lower carbon foot print than food trucked over land or flown in the air only a fraction of those same miles. See the excellent New Yorker article for a thoughtful analysis of just how subtle the issues can be: