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