The dilemma of eating locally and hurting others globally

Farmer plants rice in the Philippines. Credit:  International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
Farmer plants rice in the Philippines. Credit: International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

Want to change the world? Many tell you to start at the grocery story…or with your local farmers market.

Eat less meat, go organic, eat local and eat healthier. Such recommendations can be heard just about anywhere and they often end with a call to demand support for American farmers, or politically, renewal of the US Farm Bill. The argument sounds sensible on a quick glance and certainly so from a US-centric, self-serving perspective. But it may not be so sensible and good.

Modern food production and distribution systems are today international in scope and affect almost everyone, everywhere – and in many ways that may surprise you.

As the same time, eating local – locavores – has increasingly become a popular trend in the United States. Farm-to-table restaurants are popping up touting that they source all their products locally. The appeal is that consumers can get fresh (often organic) produce at nearly the same cost while supporting local businesses and reducing the massive carbon footprint produced by shipping food across the United States.

The trend has come with wider public recognition of the downside of industrial food production: The antibiotics used for livestock protect against disease (and boosts production) but this also builds drug resistance that has negative ramifications for people’s health. The high overall consumption of meat hurts the environment – from the methane produced by cows to the amount of land and water needed to care for them. Policies by governments and purchases by consumers have an impact on farmers from Arkansas to Haiti to the Horn of Africa.

The choice between eating cheap supermarket food versus being a sustainable locavore is not really as simple as it looks, at least if your goal is to make the world a better place.

Skipping Local to Go Global

Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development says this trend of buying locally, disdaining non-organics, is sometimes harmful to the world’s poor.

“There is certainly no easy answer. I would say, though, that buying produce from particularly developing countries is one way you can help poor people make more money, and that is, you know, a good thing in its own right. So, you know, while you’re being concerned with your carbon footprint, also be concerned with global poverty,” said Kenny on the Kojo Nnamdi Show in November 2011.

One problem is that organic farming is inefficient. Kenny points out that many of the world’s poor subsistence farmers are organic farmers because they cannot afford the fertilizers that will help crops to grow more abundantly. He cites evidence that organic farming is roughly 10% less productive than other means of agriculture.

I do think that we have to be a bit concerned when people claim that organic, local, nongenetic, demodified food is always the best for you. It’s always the best for the environment. And it’s always the best in particular for the planet and for poor people on the planet.

One example of this claim falling apart is the difference in Brits eating locally produced lamb verses lamb from New Zealand. Kenny writes in Foreign Policy that it would actually be four times more energy efficient for Brits to eat lamb from New Zealand than from Britain. The difference is largely due to what is fed to the sheep. “New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed — which itself is often imported,” says Kenny.

His article concludes in agreement and disagreement with what the Matador article recommends. Kenny agrees on eating less meat, but calls for ending farm subsidy programs in western nations (aka oppose the Farm Bill).

Farm Subsidies

Bill Clinton has played an important role in the development of Haiti dating back to his presidency. His embargo in the early 90’s harmed the economy severely, but policies that favored his home state of Arkansas may have caused more lasting damage. It came to everyone’s surprise that Clinton admitted the damage US farm subsidies have had on Haiti when touring the country as co-chair of Haiti’s earthquake recovery Commission a few months after the 2010 earthquake.

“I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did,” said Clinton. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked.”

The subsidies for American farmers allows for rice produced in the US to be sold for less in Haiti, said an Oxfam report at the time. The country went from a self-sufficient produce of rice in 1980 to now importing 80% of its rice. Arkansas is important because the state produces 48% of all the rice in the United States.

“If you take away these direct payments and the domestic market does not make up the difference, odds are farmers are going to grow more soybeans and corn,” explained Keith Glover, the president and CEO of Producers Rice Mill to Maura O’Connor for Foreign Policy this year. “What remaining rice is grown will obviously be at a higher price, and we’re going to be less competitive in the world market. Over the long haul, if we’re less competitive that means less exports.”

The farm subsidies that help American farmers to produce crops that would otherwise not be grown harms production in countries like Haiti. The policies have received pushback from the international community for years. Numerous countries decried the decision by President Bush to sign the farm bill in 2002 reported the New York Times.

In a private letter to Congressional leaders, a group of countries known as the Cairns Group, which includes Australia, Thailand, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, wrote this month that “the sheer size of the subsidy package will inevitably hurt farmers around the world, particularly in developing countries.”

Such policies then have wider effects. In Mexico it means fewer people are working in the agriculture sector and looking for labor in other places, including the United States.

“An estimated 2.3 million people have left agriculture in a country desperate for livelihoods. And food dependency has risen dramatically, which cost Mexico dearly when commodity prices spiked in 2006-8,” wrote Timothy A. Wise, Director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, in an article for Triple Crisis.

What to do?

The evidence presented by researchers does not paint a terribly clear picture. Kenny admits that considering food sources changes depending on the growing season and where a person lives. Meanwhile, the issue of subsidies is one that shows how a program which benefits American farmers can wreck long-lasting damage on developing nations. Food procurement is further complicated by requirements set forth by donors like USAID. The majority of purchases have to be American-made, so that means that even if the prices are cheaper in Somalia, most of the food aid has to come from US farmers. Melissa Roberts sums up how to make the change in the Penn Political Review where she writes:

The simplest solution to the problem of famines in Africa is to change American food aid policies. If the US government were to switch to a program of cash aid instead of in-kind food aid, drought-stricken African countries could buy food from neighboring countries not experiencing famine. Such a policy would invigorate African agriculture and actually save the US government money.

In a time when the US is looking for places to make budget cuts, farm subsidies appears to be one of the best candidates to find savings and boost the lives of the world’s poor.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]

  • MtAiryMuse

    The locavore movement is a very tiny, elite group of people who either extremely disciplined and idealistic, or wealthy and able to afford high end organic food. It is unlikely to make a dent in the international economy. Changing the American food bill so that relief dollars go to Global South farmers would have much more impact. It would boost demand, raising producer income, and would decrease shipping costs and emissions. Kind of a no-brainer, unless you are American big-agra.

  • Hi Tom. Great piece. Agree with cutting the farm subsidies but with this, even though I am a HUGE fan of the US switching to cash versus in kind when it comes to food aid, I also believe that we need to look at argi systems in the countries that we seek to assist. The argument of organic being inefficient is because people are not used to eating in season. If we did this (and we can!), buying local/organic (not to be used interchangeably) won’t be inefficient anymore. We tend to recommend that farmers use more GM products, resistant products that can have a deleterious effect on the agri systems. Host governments sometimes have huge stock piles of this coming from large scale industrial farmers who want to get this stuff sold and in doing so they make a profit but mess with the eco system. Our whole eco system is pretty messed up just now and it would be really great if agencies like FAO looked at much more ‘greener’ and ecologically sustainable methods to beef up food production in countries where there is food insecurity. It’s a big ask but not something we can’t already start working towards I think. If we are serious about climate change, the environment and natural resource management, we MUST move in this direction. More sustainable agri systems and consumers that begin to understand how to eat seasonally and with what is available. My two cents. Thanks for writing this piece.

    • Thanks Zehra for the thoughtful comment. On the issue of organic farm efficiency, it is something I have to further investigate. In the context of Kenny’s comments, I think it has to do with crop yields. That problem may be tied to planting the wrong crops, but it appears that the argument is that non-organic farming techniques (can’t think of a better term) may be more efficient. However, I will end by saying that even if that is the case it does not mean it is an open and shut conversation. As you point, diet matters and the food consumed as well as what is put into it does matter.

  • Jen
  • It’s great to see some commentary and discussion on this topic. There’s much to re-envision, rethink, and revise in our local and global food & agricultural systems for the poor and rich, the urban and the local. Would love to see deeper investigation and discussion on this and related topics.

  • Brit

    I want to see both sides here and feel like this is a bit slanted to one person’s opinion. I think good points were raised but trade is different than industrialized food systems. So talking about taking away subsidies for farmers needs more coverage because as I understand it, many laws were in place to protect farmers that have over many presidential terms disappeared. And here is a question: Why does the government subsidize corn and not carrots? There is a real dilemma and the answer is not industrialized food systems.

  • PMsuka

    I have a hard time really understanding why we would go to shipping food when we can get it locally. The foreign farmers may need to adapt and find another product to export or a product that they can sell locally. All industries need to adapt to demand and possibly change what they are producing. It seem like there are other possibilities than insisting on shipping food around the world. The money for transportation can be used in another way. If the locally grown products are too expensive then people will look again for another source and the exporting of food will be resumed in those countries that had exported food. Also local farmers can progress and find more efficient ways of producing their food so that the process go down or stay low.

    I think that possibly the policies and subsidies can be used to teach people to produce different crops or adjust to changes.
    For AIDE that is food the US should use local or closer food sources if possible. That would be supporting other developing countries or it can be seen as hurting them because if the country makes a certain amount of rice and the US buys some for AIDE then the cost for the others can go up due to there not being as much rice.

    • AdamWL

      There is one flaw in your argument if we eat locally and leave the foreign farmers to adapt what will happen to our local farms? They need to be able to produce enough food for a population of millions and most modern local farms do not have the ability to do this. We import food because of this and we have production center for the massive amount of food that we import and export. The main problem when you look at our country is our geography we have to import products because certain foods can grow here and certain foods cannot. It is just truth that foods like green beans grow better in foreign countries than how they grow here.

      I am not against the Locavore movement but I say that eating locally and eating foods from foreign countries should be balanced. If they are balanced the local and foreign markets will benefit equally.