Are locavores hurting African farmers?

Are the locavores — those who strive to eat a diet of locally produced foods — responsible for the ruination of poor African farmers? The headline — "Farmers in developing world hurt by "eat local" philosophy in U.S." — of an op-ed in Sunday"s San Francisco Chronicle certainly makes that charge. The author, Professor William Mosley of Macalester College, contends that an overemphasis on "food miles" is preventing small African farms from selling organic foods in the U.S. and European Union. With that avenue blocked, he argues, their only option is to grow standard export commodities (cotton, cacao, coffee) using plenty of pesticides, which would be worse for the farmers and our environment.

Do locavores really have that much influence on world agricultural markets?

I doubt it. Organic foods make up a few percent of the overall food market. Purchases by locavores are probably a small fraction of that. It seems more likely this is an example of how the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. With the local foods movement all over the news these days (even in Parade magazine, circulation 32 million), it is a convenient target.

Locavores buy non-local, too

Most locavores who I know are quite concerned about eating foods in the proper season, so it is unlikely that they would buy African-grown asparagus in December or African-grown tomatoes in February, even if they were organic and fair-trade certified. And there is even less chance that they would buy an imported tomato during the height of tomato season in their region.

But locavores buy plenty of dry, canned, and frozen goods from far away (like chocolate, basmati rice, and spices). And they also sometimes buy fresh fruits from far away, like mangoes from South America or coconuts from Thailand. In almost all cases, the purchases are of products that are never available in their region. So I"d expect African farmers to have better luck with fruits that are unique to Africa or unusual grains — products that have a connection to the place that they came from — than with products grown in the U.S.

Returning to the issue of finances, perhaps critics like Mosley should also take a look at huge grocery chains like Whole Foods or Trader Joe"s. Companies like these have the resources to find ingredients from around the world, develop them into products, and convince the public to buy them. Their customers are often interested in the story behind the food, and so they have an available pool of potential customers. If one wants to look at other opportunities, Americans are suckers online casino for anything labeled as "superfood" or "high in antioxidants." Perhaps Africa has something equivalent to the açaí fruits grown in South America, fruits that are famous for their nutritional value.

Mosley contends that commodity crops like cacao and coffee are a dead end for farmers, but I"m not so sure. Consumers have shown that they will pay a premium for fair trade and organic "commodities" like the ones mentioned. Properly managed, the fair trade programs should be providing higher incomes to independent farmers (as well as community development programs), while organic farming should be better for their health.

Aiming at a bigger target

The end of the op-ed has a section that makes me wonder about the headline. Mosley writes:

What we really need are changes in the basic rules that govern the global marketplace.

If international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, set and enforced rules about basic working conditions and environmental standards, then we would not be relegated to trying to promote organic farming and fair labor practices via labeling schemes and informed consumption. If African countries were allowed to protect nascent industries, then they might not be so reliant on agricultural exports.

But until these changes are made, it is a cruel joke to condemn developing-world farmers to commodity crop production and then remove the only hope they have for higher returns - organic and fair trade crops and products.

International trade barriers are just the beginning of a long list of challenges faced by African agriculture. Additional items include corrupt governments, poor infrastructure, civil wars, and billions in subsidies for their competitors (think Food and Farm Bill, and EU subsidies).

Better labeling will help

Near the beginning of his piece, Mosley mentions the U.K. Soil Association"s proposal to remove organic certification from produce shipped in by air. The argument is that transport of food by air creates enough pollution to cancel out the benefits from organic farming. On a global scale, perhaps this is true, but in the vicinity of the farm, it doesn"t work out. Organic farming is better for the health of the farmers who grow the food, and probably has lower impact on the areas around the farm. And so it makes sense to me to keep the farming technique and the transport method separate.

To help customers make informed choices, retailers are going to need more complicated labels that address the transport methods (CO2 emissions), how the food was grown (organic or industrial), labor conditions (plantation or small operation), and so on. It won"t be easy and could result in some confusion. But that is unavoidable in the current world of food, a world that is never is as easy as X vs. Y or A vs. B, a world that is complicated, multi-faceted, and ever changing.

Other voices

The OpEd has inspired quite a few posts on other blogs:

  • Marlene at Meals by Marlene thinks that Mosley"s claims are "a stretch"
  • Sam Fromartz recognizes that the situation is a lot more complicated than Mosley implies
  • Elaine of Organic Confidential offers another perspective on labels
  • Jen at Eat Local Challenge looks at how local foods and fair trade can coexist
  • Tom Philpott took on the subject a few months ago at Gristmill


9 Responsesto “Are locavores hurting African farmers?”

  1. Joe says:

    Vandana Shiva addressed this idea in a recent speech to the UK's Soil Association (podcast available somewhere...)

    Points I took away include 1) small farmers aren't the ones exporting their goods in the first place 2) a system that only allows farmers to survive by growing for foreign markets is inherently broken, 3) water and other resources used to grow export crops further weaken a poor country's ability to feed itself.

  2. azurite says:

    First, if trying to eat locally means I support local growers (and cheese-makers & butchers & ....) and preserve open space to some degree, then so be it. I see nothing wrong with preferring to buy from people I know and whose place I can perhaps visit, as opposed to those I don't.
    I also wonder who makes the major share of the profits from food exportation: "small" farmers or corporate farmers (in Central & South America--Dole leaps to mind--I don't know what corporations are in Africa)

    Second, some of what I've read suggests that those lands now being used to grow crops for export could easily be used to grow crops for internal consumption. That doesn't happen for a variety of reasons (some of which I'm sure I'm unaware of) but one is that the land is corporate-owned and more money can be made growing specialty crops for export so that's what happens, another reason is that because of the large debt load that many African nations have, they need cash crops not subsistence crops, so that's what farmers are encouraged to grow, even if it means some of those nations will continue to be dependent on food imports and/or food aid. So US consumers perpetuate a screwed up system by falling for the plaint of: but you're being selfish by wanting to buy from locals.

    There are some crops we cannot grow locally (even in CA or FL) or least not commercially, such as vanilla, coffee, cocoa, probably tea as well and who knows how many spices. Those we will continue to import. I also agree that it's unlikely that locavore consumption is making much of a dent in our total food consumption, whether US grown or imported.

    Why is it a good thing to become more and more dependent on other nations for everything we eat or use?

  3. Bah, hum-bug. That argument smacks of Big Corp trying to lash back at us. They make all sorts of absurd arguments about organic, naturally grown and local saying it's bad for the economy, environment, inefficient, etc. They even have a web site with bogus blathering to this effect - not a site I care to give any free publicity to either so I won't list the URL. They're just jealous. As for the African farmers, might I suggest they focus on feeding their local people who we also hear are starving. To export foods out of Africa is an absurdity in and of itself.

  4. bri says:

    Thank you so much Marc, for bringing this op-ed piece to our attention and for your even handed response to it. I also want to thank Joe, Azurite and Walter for your thoughtful comments. This brings up so many thoughts and questions as I read each of your thoughts, that I don't know where to begin. But, I think the main thing I keep coming back to is the bumper sticker: Think Globally, Act Locally. Of course locavores will most likely continue to buy chocolate, coffee, tea, spices and some exotic things they can find nearby, but I just do not believe that I am responsible for keeping a poor African farmer poorer, buy creating relationships the land "in my backyard" and buying from local growers who I've developed friendships with and know on a first name basis. Our world has become so complicated, and there are so many factors, but buying my local seasonal persimmons, and growing my own tomatoes can only be good for me and my family.

  5. Kim says:

    Perhaps this is naive of me (and if so, I'd like to know more), but the US sends so much aid food to Africa and Africa sells the food it produces to us. Maybe we can make that circle a little smaller by helping African farmers feed people in Africa and make a decent living doing so? Maybe local food principles can help more than just our local farmers?

  6. kat says:

    I make a fuller response to Moseley's idiocy in my blog (yeah, it still needs some polish), but...what a load of cow patties. He makes an economic argument without any research (or numbers) to back it up, and expects us to believe that Latin American and African farmers are making enough of the profits from long-distance organic to make the environmental (and cultural) costs "worth" it.

    In the process, he conveniently ignores the damage large-scale monoculture and commodity exporting is doing to US agricultural traditions and capacity. The ONLY way we can fix the broken economies (and lives, communities, cultures, and ecosystems) left behind by global capitalism is to rebuild local systems. And to do that, we have to start with our own systems.

  7. Twilight says:

    Thanks for taking this on, Marc.
    I wonder where this guy gets his funding...

    To respond to Kim:

    In addition to aid, much of the food we send to Africa is excess created by subsidies on products like rice. Sadly, it often drives down the prices on their locally-produced subsistence crops.

    Here's a sad example in Ghana:

    Playing Chicken: Ghana vs. the IMF

  8. The subsidies thing is a real issue and it isn't just hurting African farmers. The subsidies, which almost exclusively go to large farms and big corporations, also hurt our small local farmers who are not subsidized. The subsidies allow the subsidized producers to sell at an unfairly low price because they don't have to cover all their costs - the government makes up the difference. This drives down the price here as well as in Africa. That lower price then makes it harder for non-subsidized farmers to compete. This drives the small producers out of business giving the subsidized big producers more of an edge as they monopolize the market. Subsidies produce a swiftly tilting playing field and an unsustainable market.

    What we need is to stop all subsidies. Not just in farming but also in oil, farming, real estate, autos, steel, etc. There will be some pain as the market adjusts, especially on the part of the big producers who will be forced to deal with the real costs of production. In the long run the rest of us will be better off.

  9. Muddy Dog says:

    Just discovered your blog; very nice.

    I agree with the sentiment that foods local to Africa will appeal to locavores in other places. And you can still conform to your values - make sure any value added processing is done locally, for example, buy your African coffee from your local independent specialty roaster.