his is a question raised by a recent article in the Financial Times titled “The Global Local Food Market” by Nicholas Lander. The article briefly explores some of the concerns a man named Simon Maxwell, director of the Overseas Development Institute of London, has about the First World trend to buy local produce over food grown far away in the generally poorer, less-industrialized Third World.
He says the prosperity of The South depends on us–we must eat the bananas, apples, tomatoes and zucchini they grow or they won’t have the money to eat anything at all. In Kenya alone, Maxwell is attributed with saying, more than 1 million jobs depend on fresh food exports to the UK. He also says that major grocery stores are a food-crisis panacea. They foster a clean and efficient food distribution system that brings prosperity to many. And as far as the carbon costs associated with importing foods from afar, Maxwell says that the time people spend in the car driving to the grocery store accounts for more GHG emissions than the actual miles the food travels itself.
I find all this hard to digest. First of all, I recognize that entire economies are built upon foreign trade and export agriculture and that poverty globally is generally down since the Green Revolution; these two facts are intrinsically linked. However, I have a hard time jumping to the conclusion that therefore this industrialized food system is good for us and the planet. I have a hard time believing that this current state of affairs–where many agricultural workers are paid a poverty-wage (why is the food they pick so cheap?) while working often in unsafe conditions, using pesticides that are outlawed in the North (www.smallplanet.org) – is as good as it gets for the world’s poor. Sure, maybe more people have more to eat, but couldn’t we hope for better for everybody?
Secondly, the reason people are driving to the supermarket, accruing all these additional food miles, is because the industrialized food system has centralized production and distribution. You have to drive 10 km to the grocery store because the local providers no longer exist.
That said, I’m interested in exploring this topic further and will try to investigate these claims. Look for future posts.