How To Help the World... By NOT Going Local

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sometimes it can be deceivingly easy to do things that feel ethical and right that actually aren't that ethical and right. Sometimes, things are not always as they seem, and the right thing is sometimes the wrong thing.

Today I'm going to address the most sacred of all the sacred cows in the food world: the local food movement. And what I want to show my readers is that, sometimes, it's actually more ethical to buy your food from far away.

But first a quick tangent, to make sure we're all on the same page of intellectual honesty about local eating in the first place. The first thing I want to do is make sure my readers wrap their minds around four key potential flaws of locavorism:

1) The cost and the carbon footprint of transporting food is a lot lower than you'd think--even when that food is shipped enormous distances.

2) Depending on the food, some of worst fossil fuel use comes not from food transport, but from the growing, picking and processing of food. Thus it saves more carbon to grow some foods on a large, more efficient scale, even if that means bearing incremental transport costs.

3) The largest source of fossil fuel waste in the entire food supply chain comes from your car when you make a trip to buy goods. This might be one of the most powerful ironies of the entire food industry.

4) Finally, as long-time CK readers well know, eating a meatless meal two or three times a week has a far greater impact on the environment than eating local.

At this point, I know I'll get some severe pushback from a few readers who are either emotionally invested in feeling good about themselves because they eat locally, or who simply can't handle the counterintuitive nature of this debate. To those readers I say this: please reread the quote at the beginning of this essay.

To the vast majority of my readers who can handle opposing ideas, feel free to explore the bibliography below for more on how going local isn't always as clear-cut as you'd think.

However, what you've read so far is all preamble. I want to use this as a starting point for an idea that should really bake your noodle:

It would be better for the world if we all purchased more food from developing countries.

Remember last week's article, where I talked about armies of perfectly nice church ladies sending free clothes to Africa--and unknowingly annihilating the textile industries in several countries? Well, instead of sending free stuff out to countries that...

a) aren't as poor as we think anymore,
b) don't necessarily need the things we send, and
c) should be building their own self-sufficient industries to help improve their standard of living,

...why not purchase more good and services from those countries and directly help them raise their living standards?

I'll give an example. Every year in late winter, you can buy clementines in our grocery stores here in New Jersey. Usually they come from Spain. But this year, for the first time, I saw clementines imported from Morocco, Spain's neighbor across the Strait of Gibraltar.

At first, I was racking my brain trying to think if I'd ever bought anything from Morocco, ever. Heck, the closest I've ever been to Morocco was watching The Bourne Ultimatum. But then I thought through it. Spain is a rich country, Morocco is not. In fact, Spain's GDP per capita is six times Morocco's.

The people who are picking clementines, the people who packing and processing these fruits, and an entire ecosystem of entrepreneurs who are investing in the future of Morocco's ag exports--why not support all of these people? Why not help this ecosystem, when it's likely that my support will make a more significant difference for the people of Morocco than it ever would for Spain?

This is why I look carefully at the country of origin labels on my foods, and I keep in mind this list of countries ranked by GDP per capita. And when I'm in my grocery store making a purchase, and I have a choice between a food from a rich country and a poor country, I try to bias my purchase to the poor country.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

Food That Travels Well (New York Times)
Math Lessons for Locavores (New York Times)
Food Miles ( Note this particularly useful money quote: "Food miles also ignore benefits gained by improving livelihoods in developing countries through agricultural development."
Food, Fuel and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions.

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Eleni said...

I'm actually relieved to read this because I often feel guilty for buying apples from the supermarket instead of holding out until Saturday to go to the local farmers' market. And, as with many of your readers, unfortunately my budget is a big factor in deciding what to buy. So I would say that, if foods from poorer countries were cheaper, then I would be happy to buy them! I guess the key (as with so many things) is to mix-and-match: you can support your local farmer by buying his beef once in a while, just as you can support poor farmers in Morocco by buying their clementines once in a while. Nobody needs to be a slave to one type of shopping over the other!

Anonymous said...

I also, was glad to hear someone voice this. The secret is to mix and match and not rely on any one "solution" to cure the world's ills.

But, honestly, the main reason I buy local during the warm months isn't to support the local economy or because I'm worried about the carbon footprint. It's because locally grown has more nutrients (on average) than something grown on huge scale as quickly as possible and harvested before being truly ripe.

There's a reason the number of supplements I take in the winter goes up significantly.

Anonymous said...

I think that this is an issue that can be analyzed at many levels. One problem that happens when people suddenly start buying food from developing countries is that the cost of food suddenly skyrockets for local eaters, as farmers get better prices by exporting their crops (the sudden popularity of quinoa in North America is a great example of this).

There is also some additional problems as there are many more middle-men involved in shipping products from far away. Buying from developing countries may enrich shippers and processors infinitely more than farmers in developing countries (e.g., from what I've read, farmers are not gaining anything from increasing world prices for coffee).

There is certainly an argument to be made, however. I think the Kenyan government made a big case for people in the UK to buy produce shipped from Africa because of the difference in carbon emissions. But if increased revenue means that farmers mechanize more, you end up with the same problem.

The environmental benefits of buying food from the developing world depend greatly on how the food is transported. Bananas are great - they go by ship and are very carbon efficient. Buying asparagus or raspberries flown in from South America is actually quite bad, environmentally speaking.

I guess I'm trying to say that there are no easy answers. I suggest reading "How bad are bananas: the carbon footprint of everything" to get a more nuanced view of the issues.

Lo said...

Good points, and a must read for first-time locavores or those who don't know much about the movement.

But, I think there's a larger picture to eating locally -- and more often than not, it includes the support of agriculture in other parts of the world -- as well as fair trade products, etc.

Many serious locavores are also members of a larger food movement which advocates for sustainability and food justice. For those individuals, there are no rules about buying ONLY local food. In fact, supporting the local economy can mean buying things from far outside of the "local sphere" -- but supporting local businesses while doing it.

You're probably right that many people sign on to the "local eating" movement without much thought to the actual logistics, but many of us who support the movement are well aware of the trade-offs, economics, and environmental trade-offs that are involved. Many of us are also involved in other environmental efforts that contribute to the other pieces of "carbon footprint" that you mention.

chacha1 said...

There are certain luxury items - like chocolate and coffee - for which I make a conscious effort to look for "fair trade" purveyors.

There are certain delicate items - berries, etc. - for which I make a conscious effort to look for "organic" purveyors.

And there are certain high environmental impact items - like dairy (without which I would starve to death) and meat - for which I make an effort to find organic, free-range, grass fed etc. because the feed-lot alternatives are so disgusting. And yes I know some organic producers use feed lots, but there are feed lots and there are feed lots.

I happily buy imported foods and appreciate this nudge to be more mindful of where these foods are imported *from*. Because the middleman problem is ... a problem.

And the idea that my food purchase might drive up the price of that food 'back home' is unsettling.

I am thinking, though, that most foods imported by the US from developing countries are not staple foods in their land of origin. (Quinoa notwithstanding.) Clementines are certainly a luxury anywhere.

Daniel said...

Good insights and a nuanced discussion so far. Thank you.

Regarding the comment from Anonymous (9:43am) about concerns that this would drive up prices in that country's domestic market, be careful not to get trapped in static or fixed-pie thinking. Don't worry: you won't be eating someone else's lunch.

It's more likely these incremental sales will simply encourage farmers to plant more acreage. Further, as Chacha1 says, most of the exported items are not staples.

The final, and most compelling reason to consider (for USA-based readers at least) is this: The USA is an exporter (not an importer) of major staples like grains, corn, rice and so on. These simply aren't the types of crops we're going to find imported from less-developed countries.

Granted, there are lots of complexities here and plenty of ways to think about imported vs. local foods, and of course a debate about global trade is far beyond the scope of this blog. But the specific concern about pricing shouldn't be at the top of our list of things to worry about.


Brittany said...

Seconded, Anonymous #2. That was about exactly what I was going to say. I recall studying this in depth in an Development Economics class when I was in college. Something to keep in mind, Daniel--it takes TIME to plant and grow more crops. Exporting food globally that's needed locally because prices are higher globally (and thus driving up prices locally) is a real problem in some countries/for some products. Plantains may be a "luxury" in the States, but in some countries, they're a staple food source. And farmers expanding their production next growing season to meet growing global demand doesn't help if you can afford to buy food this growing season.

However, I'm also glad to see you standing up against the LOCAL FOOD! people.

Daniel said...

Brittany, yes, in the context of planting more acreage, agreed, it takes time--you have to wait until the next growing season.

But again, there is an entire suite of reasons why you shouldn't over-fixate on this specific issue. Have a look at my comment above.


Leah McGrath, RDN, LDN said...

Also glad you wrote this. As a supermarket dietitian I hear people often say "I only buy local" - which of course is not the case if they eat bananas or drink coffee. Since there's no definition of local it is open to interpretation - both by the consumer and the retailer (even if the retailer is a farmer's market). In many areas local is not viable or sustainable due to weather and land conditions and is easily affected by drought/floods or other natural disasters. Small farms in many areas are being overwhelmed by requests from tailgate & farmers markets, supermarkets, restaurants etc for their local products. Lastly, there are many communities that don't have the facilities to make local available locally. A good example of this is with chicken in SC. There are people that raise chickens but the plants to process them are in GA.

Ilke said...

Good points. I agree with purchasing from the people/countries that need that income. I don't mind buying local produce but we need to be aware of the fact that we just can not survive on local food, especially some areas might have very limited growing season. Every climate and soil have their best to offer, so why limit ourselves?

Anonymous said...

I believe that in the interests of long-term food security, each region should be able to feed itself. This is part of the reason why I try to eat local. I try not to rely on foods from far away, whether that means Morocco or Florida.

Daniel said...

That's a fair point, Anon. But I believe you can work to both ends. You can make sure your region can feed itself AND help other regions too.

At the end of the day we all live on the same planet.


Diane said...

On this issue, I'm not as much interested in "helping the world" as I am in helping my local community. And I think its good for me to support my local farmers and provide them a market. I buy stuff from far away of course (I buy rice from Thailand and India, spices from India, coffee from South America, mangos from Mexico, etc etc etc), but when I can - and when I have a choice - I look for and buy local products. Plus I think they are fresher and taste better than ones trucked in from far away.

Julia said...

Your argument is about buying from one foreign country over another. I can certainly appreciate wanting to support a country that needs more help. But what about supporting your own community. I think that's a big part of buying local. I don't recall the exact statistic, but for every dollar you spend in your community, it's spent 3 times over -- by the business owner and employees who then also buy in their community. And that money is supporting your infrastructure and schools.

The argument for locavorism is more than just carbon footprint. It's about local economies, soil health and nutrition. Small, local farmers tend to practice more sustainable methods of farming even if they're not organic.

You say the biggest carbon emission in the food chain is from the customer driving to the store... but that will happen whether they buy local or not.

(You knew you were going to ruffle my feathers with this on.

Daniel said...

Again, I'm grateful for the insightful comments.

And Julia, no, I wasn't trying to ruffle anyone's feathers. I'm just challenging my readers to think critically. Which they all do quite well, you included. :)


Julia said...

This is the response I wanted to write to your post:'re_wrong/?page=entire

Daniel said...

Julia, that's a useful (and Friday Links-worthy) article, thank you for sharing.

I guess I'll make two more general comments on this issue: First please keep in mind that the local foods issue was just prelude here in this post. The real thesis of this post was how to help developing countries.

Second, I see errors of logic on both sides of the local foods debate, including straw man arguments, either/or fallacies, false generalizations, massaged and cherry-picked facts--and worst of all, math and economics errors. And of course, it's always easy to lampoon the other side of an argument if you reduce their statements to rigid rules and then pick out a contra-example that makes those rigid rules seem stupid. Probably many readers can accuse me of doing just that in this post. :)

At the end of the day, I think this is why I find myself staking out mostly middle ground in the local foods debate.

All I'm trying to do here is to follow Fitzgerald's dictum and help readers hold two opposing ideas in their heads at the same time.


Anne @ Unique Gifter said...

While you make some valid points, it's such a ridiculously complex discussion and I feel some of your points swing too far :-P
Yes, a Swedish hot house tomato in the UK is better than a British hot house tomato in the UK.

Cash crops in developing countries have a myriad of impacts, including reducing local food supplies, subjecting farmers to global commodity price swings, increasing land degradation, increasing debt levels to procure inputs to have prices crash, and on and on. Yes, cash inflows due to cash crops can be beneficial, yet there are a myriad of downsides to consider as well.
Then, there's the issue of developed world agricultural dumping, "food aid (of the dumping/sale for healthy margins variety)" and general developed world agricultural policy. Of course, there are arguments that very much make a valid case for some protectionism in our own food policy, too.

New Zealand is pretty good on most agricultural fronts, for what it's worth.

...I have to comment briefly, because I can (and have) write too many essays on this subject.