Monday, September 15, 2008

Unintended consequences

As I have moved toward eating more locally grown food, many people have brought up the idea of unintended consequences. In such a globalized world, our actions taken in a local context may quickly expand to affect the most far-flung reaches of this planet. May I pause to remind one and all that no man is an island. Or so they say. I have heard statistics which say that if x amount of people began to buy all their food locally, y amount of people in developing countries will be flat on their faces, having lost their livelihoods to the whims of Starbucks dems. I actually don't doubt these statistics, and they have caused great introspection and consternation. I'm still tring to learn more and figure out which path is best. The following short article helped me to see another side of the issue.

"By purchasing local vegetables instead of South American ones, for example, aren't we hurting farmers in developing countries? If you're picturing Farmer Juan and his family gratefully wiping sweat from their brows when you buy that Ecuadorean banana, picture this instead: the CEO of Dole Inc. in his air-conditioned office in Westlake Village, California. He's worth $1.4 billion; Juan gets about $6 a day. Much money is made in the global reshuffling of food, but the main beneficiaries are processors, brokers, shippers, supermarkets, and oil companies.
Developed nations promote domestic overproduction of commodity crops that are sold on the international market at well below market price, undermining the fragile economies of developing countries. Often this has the effect of driving small farmers into urban areas for jobs, decreasing the agricultural output of a country, and forcing the population to purchase those same commodities from abroad. Those who do stay in farm work are likely to end up not as farm-owners, but as labor on plantations owned by multinationals. They may find themselves working in direct conflict with local subsistence. Thus, when Americans buy soy products from Brazil, for example, we're likely supporting an international company that has burned countless acres of Amazon rainforest to grow soy for export, destroying indigenous populations. Global trade deals negotiated by the World Trade Organization and World Bank allow corporations to shop for food from countries with the poorest environmental, safety, and labor conditions. While passing bargains onto consumers, this pits farmers in one country against those in another, in a downward wage spiral. Product quality is somewhat irrelevant.
Most people no longer believe that buying sneakers made in Asian sweatshops is a kindness to those child laborers. Farming is similar. In every country on earth, the most humane scenario for farmers is likely to be feeding those who live nearby - if international markets would allow them to do it. Food transport has become a bizarre and profitable economic equation that's no longer really about feeding anyone: in our own nation we export 1.1 million tons of potatoes, while we also import 1.4 million tons. If you care about farmers, let the potatoes stay home."
-- Steven L. Hopp

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Joseph said...

I don't know enough, but I have 2 thoughts.

At least for some products, isn't there an argument that buying non-local helps the farmer at least some (the Dole president gets a bunch, but $6/day is better than $5, isn't it)?

I forgot my other thought.

Joseph said...

My other thought: how do fair-trade products factor into what this article is saying?

I want answers. Now.

Anonymous said...

I read a great book several weeks back... The Ethics of What we Eat: Why our Food Choices Matter. Some of it I agreed with. Other parts of it didn't line up with my worldview. But the important takeaway, for me, is that we ought to be MAKING (an active verb) food CHOICES (a realization that there's a broader consequence to our selections that what ends up on our plates).

Cheers to you for considering where your food comes from before you buy it. Way to go for being deliberate over a choice that can be made merely out of convenience.

Mark said...

I like what Micah said. Thanks for poring over this. It breaks ground for the rest of us.

Heather Sanders said...

Hey, thanks for all your thoughts. Joseph, I don't have all the answers, but I probably will by next Sunday. All of them. I'm going to look into those things some more.

Anonymous said...

Here's an article on the new food labeling law. Seems like it has its faults, but it's a step toward making more informed choices.