I enjoy shopping at the farmers market in Bethesda, Md., where I live. It’s a pleasant way to pass time on a Sunday morning, and a chance to run into friends and neighbors. I feel good about supporting farmers who work nearby. Sure, it’s pricey–I was shocked to pay $8 for a sliver of cheese a while back and if I remember correctly, fresh tuna sells for $30 per pound–but the food at the farmers’ market is pricey the way a Venti Starbucks yada-yada-yada is pricey. You’re not buying cheese, tuna or coffee. You’re partaking of an experience.
What you are not doing is saving the planet.
The best thing for the environment is to not to grow food locally but to grow crops in the places where they grow best–places where the soil, rainfall and climate suit whatever is being grown.
So, at least, says Greg Page, the former CEO and current executive chairman of Cargill, the giant food company that grows, processes and ships agricultural and food products around the world. Of course you would expect Page, who is 62 and has worked his entire career at Cargill, to favor a globalized food system. But, as he notes, there’s no particularly good reason to treat food differently from other consumer goods that are produced efficiently and then shipped to where they are needed. We don’t worry about local big-screen TVs or local running shoes or local auto parts.
I interviewed Page last month in Washington, and wrote about him this week at Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how my story begins:
Long before Greg Page became the executive chairman of Cargill, one of the world’s largest food companies, the company dispatched him to Thailand to build a chicken plant in a rural province north of Bangkok. “It was a chance”, he said, “to start a business from scratch in an overseas location, while having access to the resources of Cargill”. Plus, he noted with a smile, he was “12 hours from headquarters … I loved it”.
Today, Cargill Meats Thailand imports soymeal from Brazil and Argentina to feed chickens, which are raised, slaughtered, processed, cooked and frozen into a wide range of products, most destined for restaurants and supermarkets in Japan, Europe, Canada and Hong Kong. Chicken parts that don’t appeal to western appetites — feet, heads and the like — are consumed locally or exported to nearby Asian markets.
To locavores who want to look their farmer in the eye, to the advocates of food sovereignty, and to those who argue that ‘cooking solves everything’, this is a nightmarish way to produce food. But to Greg Page, who has spent 41 years at Cargill and is now its executive chairman, global trade in food and agriculture is not only good for producers and consumers — it’s also a key element of a sustainable food system.
“Trade facilitates sustainability,” Page said when we met recently at Cargill’s Washington, D.C., office. “The world was not endowed with good soil and good rainfall equally. You want to move production to the right soil and the right climate, where it belongs.”
Of course, as Page knows, it’s not quite that simple. All other things being equal (and they rarely are), buying locally makes environmental sense, keeps food fresher and reduces waste. We may want to restrict agricultural imports from certain places because of food-safety concerns. And, as some of the commenters on my Guardian story say, the globalization of agriculture raises issues about land and water use and trade’s impact on poor farmers who can’t compete with large-scale agriculture.
But I’m trying to make a simpler point here–that local does not equal sustainable. Trade can be a glorious thing, Fair Trade is even better, and agriculture is no exception.
You can read the rest of my story here.