Going Local on a Global Scale: Rethinking Food Trade in the Era of Climate Change, Dumping & Rural Poverty

Kristen Schwind | 07.01.2005

Food First Backgrounder, Spring/Summer 2005, Vol. 11, No. 2

Fresh, local food is a vision that unites community food security activists, environmentalists, slow food enthusiasts, and small-scale farmers globally. Supporting or rebuilding local food systems to bring fresh and culturally relevant food from local producers to local consumers catalyzes community and regional development in both the global North and the global South. Producing and marketing more food locally can help alleviate both global climate change and rural poverty. Building these local food systems requires rethinking the role of trade and the institutions that promote it.

Trade Fuels Climate Change

Advocating for local food requires reexamining the deeply held economic theory of competitive advantage, which holds that each region should specialize in producing only what it can produce most cheaply, then trade with other regions for everything else. However, traditional economic calculations do not account for the true environmental cost of trade. For example, the potentially cataclysmic impacts of climate change mean that the environmental costs of transporting goods long distances are much higher than previously thought.

Most food travels hundreds, even thousands, of miles from farm to plate,1 and the fossil fuel transportation infrastructure we rely on for all this trade emits greenhouse gasses that are contributing to climate change. Climate change is raising sea temperatures and flooding coastal areas, and has the potential to increase crop failures, cause mass extinctions, and spur more destructive weather patterns such as hurricanes—all with profound implications for agriculture and human habitation. Since the full consequences will not be felt for years after the greenhouse gasses have been emitted, it is exceedingly difficult to predict and price future ecological damage and add it to the energy costs of today’s food system. Thus even prices that are adjusted to include current energy subsidies or minor “climate change taxes” are not reliable indicators of the ecological and social price of fossil fuel–driven global trade.

For those who think that lack of food causes hunger, it’s surprising to learn that the world currently has an overproduction of basic food crops, which results in low prices to farmers and low rural incomes.

Buying local food can make a big difference to the environment. For example, in 1920 Iowa produced a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but now most of its fruits and vegetables are shipped from elsewhere. If Iowans bought just 10 percent more of their food from within the state, they could collectively save 7.9 million pounds of carbon dioxide emission a year. The Japanese environmental organization Daichi-o-Mamoru Kai (the Association to Preserve the Earth) found that if Japanese families consumed local food instead of imported food, the impact would be equivalent to reducing household energy use by 20 percent; the biggest impact would come from eating tofu products from soy grown in Japan instead of in the US. And researchers in the UK have calculated that purchasing local food has a greater positive impact on the environment than buying organic food that is not local. While some food trade is inevitable, such as tropical products like coffee that are staples in colder climates, a surprising amount of trade is duplicative and ecologically wasteful. For example, Heinz ketchup eaten in California is made with California-grown tomatoes that have been shipped to Canada for processing and returned in bottles. In one year, the port of New York City exported $431,000 worth of California almonds to Italy, and imported $397,000 worth of Italian almonds to the United States. This sort of unnecessary trade mortgages our children’s planet for profits today.

Globalized, Consolidated Food Trade Undermines Local Economies

Food trade can also undermine rural economies. For those who think that lack of food causes hunger, it’s surprising to learn that the world currently has an overproduction of basic food crops, which results in low prices to farmers and low rural incomes. Overproduction also results in dumping: the selling of imported food at less than it costs to produce it. Developing nations often point to the unfairness of this global food trading system. In response to low prices, many First World farmers receive subsidies, which can allow them to sell their harvests for less than the cost of production. Current trade rules permit this dumping, which can destroy nonsubsidized farmers’ ability to compete. For example, rice, one of the world’s most universal staple crops and a major US export, is sold on the world market at 20 to 34 percent less than what it costs the average US farmer to grow it— devastating competition for farmers who need to recoup their full production costs to survive. In 2004, Indonesia banned rice imports to protect the livelihoods of its farmers, who produce enough rice to feed Indonesia’s population.

But if the farmers suffer, do the poor and hungry benefit from floods of cheap food? The surprising truth is that a vast majority of the world’s poor make their living off agriculture, and 50 percent of the people who live with hunger globally are smallscale farmers.11 The global overproduction of basic foods is a major factor driving low incomes and poverty in rural areas. Rural poverty drives urban poverty, as desperate economic refugees from failing farms drive down wages in urban areas.12 Pro-poor development policies need to raise farm incomes for small-scale farmers. Reestablishing small farmers’ access to local markets to sell their food is one such policy, and is the proposal put forth by Via Campesina, a network of nearly 100 major small-scale farmer organizations around the world.