Monday, May 08, 2006

food ethics: local vs. global

There are several really interesting ethical dilemmas in food production, including whether organic food is elitist, and whether GMO food is an ecological step forward or backward. In today there's an interview with ethicist Peter Singer, who has written a new book called "The Way We Eat." The most interesting, to me, section of that interview has to do with local vs. non-local food production. Singer takes what might be seen as a surprising point of view for a vegan who spends a lot of time worrying about where food comes from:

In the same vein, you argue that in the interests of alleviating world poverty, it's better to buy food from Kenya than to buy locally, even if the Kenyan farmer only gets 2 cents on the dollar.

My argument is that we should not necessarily buy locally, because if we do, we cut out the opportunity for the poorest countries to trade with us, and agriculture is one of the things they can do, and which can help them develop. The objection to this, which I quote from Brian Halweil, one of the leading advocates of the local movement, is that very little of the money actually gets back to the Kenyan farmer. But my calculations show that even if as little as 2 cents on the dollar gets back to the Kenyan farmer, that could make a bigger difference to the Kenyan grower than an entire dollar would to a local grower. It's the law of diminishing marginal utility. If you are only earning $300, 2 cents can make a bigger difference to you than a dollar can make to the person earning $30,000.

Now, the "standard" position when you get left-of-center folks together to talk about food production is just the opposite. For example, an esteemed panel, consisting of the authors of Fast Food Nation and The Botany of Desire/The Omnivore's dilemma, the founder of the Slow Food movement, and two others, a few years back talked about the problems of industrial food production (MP3s for your iPod available here). The consensus there was that globalization of the food supply gives people bad food, causes severe ecological damage, destroys cultures, and enriches large corporations instead of poor farmers. All very compelling arguments.

But now we have the opposite take. Globalization of the food supply allows third-world farmers to produce things they're good at, like inexpensive food, while Americans will have to move onto things we're good at, like building airplanes. This specialization process makes both farmers and non-farmers more efficient, which increases everyone's income (via increased productivity). Also a compelling argument, and related to the argument about how US and European farm subsidies keep farmers in poor countries in desperate poverty. (A point that was partially made, but somewhat hedged, by at least one member of that panel.)

So what's the solution to this dilemma? Buy locally, for environmental reasons, or buy globally, to reduce poverty? Or is it a false dilemma?

Perhaps the thing to do is to do both. Buy some of your food locally and organic, supporting heritage agriculture, quality, and ecological production. Buy some of your food globally, such as fruit and vegetables out of season, knowing that at least a small part of your money is going to poor farmers who need the business. (Or a larger part if it's fair trade, as in coffee.) And then support politicians who will stand up to the agribusiness lobby and vote to reduce or eliminate farm subsidies, allowing more opportunity for poor farmers in other countries to compete.



At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, Mexican farmers can't sell their crops at a sustainable price because Conagra et al is busy selling their farm-industry produce at below Mexican production costs in Mexico. This is certainly globalization, but how is it helping the Mexican farmer who now can't even feed himself?

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Harlan said...

Oh, I certainly agree. Although Conagra et al are able to sell their corn to Mexico for 1/3 of their production costs because of American farm subsidies. Which I think many many people (aside from Conagra employees) think are a bad idea for exactly that reason. I don't there's a conflict between wanting to eliminate American farm subsidies and buying vegetables raised overseas...

At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Ben said...

Okay, but I'd rebut with Darwin's Nightmare here. What about fisherman who catch ecologically damaging fish that are then sold to Europe while the people on the lake where the fish are caught starve?

For Singer's solution to work, there needs to be adaquate protection for the African farmer AND a surplus. Without a surplus in Africa, people will starve as their food gets shipped to industrialized countries. One way around this problem? Buy local.

That would be my public argument. Personally, I like food from all over the world. I went to a resturant in Nova Scotia that was "all local," and you have never tasted worse wine or carrots in your life. Ugh!

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Harlan said...

Ben, yep, this is why it's a dilemma. :)

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Maggy said...

I know this is a really old thread but I just stumbled on it. I've read Peter Singer's book and he makes a very complex and detailed argument about the relative ethics of many food decisions (i.e. if it takes more fuel to heat the hothouse that allows you to extend your growing season for tomatoes in Massachussetts than it does to fly them up from Chile for that part of the season, buy the ones from Chile.) Few people will agonize over every choice and all the variables that weigh on one side or the other for each item they purchase. It's a useful book in the sense that he has done a lot of this agonizing already and you can draw your own lines (conclusions). I think the issue with African farmers is more the subsidies and corporate structures that prevent them from exporting commodity crops (coffee, sugar, cocoa) at a price that allows them to make a decent living. I don't think they are exporting their own food, unless they devote their entire arable land to the commodity crop. Which is a possibility, I suppose, but if they got a fair price in the first place they wouldn't need to do that. It's just not as simple as Buy Organic or Local or Not Local or Fair Trade or Sustainably Harvested or Cruelty Free or Free Farmed or Fair Trade. I think the thing is to be aware, make the best choices you can and exert your financial influence on the food marketplace as ethically as possible. And understand that what that means is likely to change.


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