Is it really a savior for smallholder farmers in the global south?
In the latest Victual Reality, I addressed the "eat-local backlash" — the steady trickle of media reports seeking to debunk the supposed social and environmental benefits of eating from one’s foodshed.
Some of the charges are easy to refute. Hey, in Maine, it takes more energy to produce hothouse tomatoes in January than it does to ship them up from South America!
Really? Try eating something besides fresh tomatoes in January in Maine. Hell, if you really want Maine tomatoes in January, organize to invest in community-scale canning infrastructure, and then capture July’s bounty for the whole year.
There’s another charge that’s a little trickier to address: that a strict buy-local ethos harms the interests of farmers in the global south. In this view, consumers in the developed nations have a moral duty to buy from farmers in the south, particularly organic ones, so that these farmers can "pull themselves out of poverty," etc.
A wide range of people cling to this view. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey — when he’s not secretly shilling his company’s own stock in chat rooms — brandishes it as evidence of his social responsibility. Peter Singer, that somewhat daft philosopher and animal-rights enthusiast, pushes it too, most recently in his tome The Way We Eat.
Just last week, The Times of London — a once-great paper turned into a yellow sheet by its owner Rupert Murdoch, who recently got his paws on our own great Wall Street Journal — gave it a full airing.
Titled, in full Murdochian subtlety, "Organic Farmers Face Ruin as Rich Nations Agonize Over Food Miles," the piece begins thus:
As she proudly surveys a plantation of avocado trees and bananas, surrounded by pools of fresh cow manure, Jane Kimani cuts an unlikely figure as an ecological villain.
Like other farmers in this village, about 15 miles (25km) outside Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, she lives in a modest dwelling of brick walls and a corrugated-iron roof only yards from cow sheds, a new apiary and vegetable plots. She does not own a car and uses little electricity.
She farms organically without knowing it, simply because, like many people in a country where two thirds of the population live on less than 50p a day, she could not afford fertilisers and chemical sprays. Her carbon footprint is insignificant.
Yet Mrs Kimani and her husband, Charles, face economic ruin because of the alleged environmental impact of their modest farm. The Soil Association, which certifies about 80 per cent of organic produce in the United Kingdom, has threatened to take away the organic certification from farms in East Africa because their produce is transported to Europe by air, contributing to global warming.
Now, this is an extremely complex topic, one I plan to return to in detail.
For now, let me recast it in new terms. In the Mackey/Singer/Times view, what we have here is a case of wealthy-nation enviros crassly sticking it to poor-nation farmers, driving them to ruin over an abstraction (lowering one’s carbon footprint).
But let’s look at it like this: In Kenya, where millions of undernourished, underemployed people choke the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa, should the fertility of the nation’s prime farmland, and the efforts of its most ingenious farmers, rightly be used to grow organic tomatoes for consumers in Mother England?
By the same token, should the best farmland of Guatemala and Mexico be devoted to stocking the off-season produce shelves at Whole Foods outlets in the comfy areas of Austin and Manhattan?
To me, it’s an insane economic order that sucks food — and thus soil fertility and farmers’ labor power — out of countries with high levels of poverty and malnourishment. That people in the rich nations can do so with a thunderclap of self-congratulation — that defies belief.
Now, it’s important to note that an economic order that makes Kenyan smallholder farmers seem dependent on British or U.S. consumers for their livelihoods, while their countrymen scrounge for food, didn’t arise from nowhere.
For at least 30 years, supranational institutions like the World Bank and the IMF have been subtly and not-so-subtly pushing farmers in the south to produce commodities for the global market — a policy that has led very few out of poverty, but has instead caused a rural economic meltdown and the rise of megacities ill-equipped to absorb the literally hundreds of millions of people who have been pushed off the land.
That’s a topic I addressed on my old blog, Bitter Greens Journal — and one I plan to return to soon.