Responsible trade: Is the local food movement part of the answer?

A very evocative image from the cover of Empires of Food by Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas.

Recently there has been a heated debate in the media about whether local food movement is really a good thing. This recent Maclean’s article reviewed The Locavore’s Dilemma by Canadian economists Desrochers and Shimiz.  The authors argue that the focus on local food production and consumption is actually a threat to our economy, environment, and personal health.  Instead, industrialization and specialization in the food system hold the keys to a more abundant, affordable, and safer diet.

I (Graham) recently read Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by another Canadian, Evan Fraser, and co-author Andrew Rimas.  The book recounts the historical experience of societies dependent on imperial food systems.  Some patterns they point out are particularly relevant to the current debate about local food and offer real insight into the larger justice issues that have motivated us to start a food cooperative.

Advanced civilizations are the direct result of food surpluses. If food is scarce, it’s hard work to get it and there’s no time left for creating art, talking politics, or writing books on economics.  So any culture that has developed advanced complexities has had access to ample food — someone’s surplus.  That surplus is likely locally produced originally, but chances are, as the society evolves and grows in population and wealth, those surpluses come from further afield through trade. Empires tells some remarkable stories of how this trade has shaped various complex societies: the wheat freighters hauling Egyptian grain to feed Rome’s million residents, the British East India Company bringing tea, cotton, etc. to Europe, the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg, and the American trade in corn.  But what if those producing the food surplus can’t produce it for the price the traders need, or demand?

The history of food trading is marred by serious patterns of exploitation and market manipulation. African slaves fuelled American and Caribbean agricultural production for generations.  The Opium Wars forced drug trade onto China, and whole Pacific island cultures were exterminated in order to provide low-cost spices.  Even today, with all the technological advances in modern food production, the human producers of industrial food are often the least remunerated: migrant workers in California or Canada (where it’s legal to pay up to 15% less to migrant workers than Canadians), tenant farmers in South America or Africa, Indians indebted to multinational suppliers.

Stalled corn is displayed on a farm in Geff, Illinois on Monday, July 16, 2012. 53-year-old farmer David White says he has never experienced such extreme drought. Little rain and long lasting heat has dried up his acres forcing him to declare this year a “total loss.” (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

Specialization in agricultural production achieves some impressive efficiencies, but it also means that a trading region, or country, is vulnerable to fluctuation in prices, bad weather, or other ill forces beyond producers’ control. What happens when bad weather is widespread, like this summer’s drought that’s affecting two-thirds of the US and much of Canada, or the excessive rain falling throughout England?  What if economic shocks spike prices and borders close to the rice trade, like India experienced in 2008?  What would happen if these events happened at simultaneously?

Empires isn’t about doomsday scenarios, but does suggest a sort of “glocalism”, promoting diversified production and consumption of local foods, while responsibly trading foodstuffs to avoid exploitation of distant producers.  Utopian, some may suggest, but perhaps no more so than trusting the Market to provide adequate food for all.

We believe this discussion points to why we need The Mustard Seed in Hamilton: we’ll responsibly source whatever we can from local producers, while ensuring the bounty of distant farms enriches life on both sides of the trade.

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