The trouble with local food

There’s lots to like about the local food movement. Fresh, local seasonal fruits and vegetables taste better. Farmers markets enhance the vitality of city life. Cutting “food miles” reduces carbon pollution, and money spent by locavores stays with nearby growers.

Alberto Weisser, the CEO of Bunge, a $60-billion a year global agribusiness and food company is, not surprisingly, unimpressed. His global business is built on trade. Bunge operates in 40 countries. It charters 150 ships a day to carry agricultural products. Only one terminal to export grain from the US has been built in the past 25–and it was built by Bunge, near the Columbia River in Washington, to ship grain from the US to Asia.

But Weisser, who spoke today [Dec 11] at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, made a good case that an expansion of global trade  will be the best way to feed the world in a sustainable way, as well as increase the incomes of millions of poor farmers. Like it or not, he said, the world is more interdependent than ever.

Alberto Weisser

“When it comes to agriculture, no country is an island–even the ones that are islands,” Weisser said, displaying a flash of humor in what was otherwise a sober look at the issue of global food security. “I remain firm in my belief in free markets, and what they, and only they, can deliver.”

Government, he acknowledged, has a vital role to play in food systems. It needs to assure food safety. It also needs to manage environmental impacts.

Climate change, he said, is an undeniable reality for Bunge. Northern climates are warming.

“The fact that the Ukraine grew two and a half million tons of corn–that’s news,” Weisser said. “We are growing soybeans all the way into Canada.” He said the company has closed 20 “crush plants” — those are facilities that turn seeds into oils — because “they were in regions that weren’t relevant anymore.” Who knew?

But the uncertainties created by climate change argue for global supply chains. This summer’s drought, for example, led to disappointing yields for US farmers. “South American farmers are picking up the slack by shifting to corn or soybeans,” he said.

The local-food movement, moreover, ignores the inconvenient fact that there are places where it’s all but impossible for people to grow their own food.

“Asia, for example, has 55% of the population but only 25% of the agricultural area,” Weisser said. And more than 450 million people live in desert-like conditions in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Morocco, meantime, used to produce its own wheat until the government there encouraged farmers to grow vegetables and olive oil. It now exports those products to Europe and imports wheat from Ukraine–and the result is that everyone is better off, as David Ricardo might have anticipated.

“Trade has been the most powerful engine for economic development in the world’s history,” Weisser said. “We need the ability to grow commodities where it makes the most sense to grow them, and then move them wherever they need to go.”

This is by no means a widely accepted truth, as he noted.

“Globally, the flow of trade is impeded or stopped by too many obstacles,” Weisser said. “The temptation to retreat from the world, build a wall and bolt the door is profound. We see it every day.”

He didn’t cite specific examples but, sticking close to home, the US has tariff barriers against imported sugar that protect local growers and cost consumers and taxpayers millions. The US has also flooded the world with subsidized cotton, damaging growers in poor countries, particularly west Africa, as the UK’s Glenys Kinnock argued last year in The Guardian.

None of which means you should drop your CSA or abandon the local farmers’ market. But let’s not worry too much about food  miles or food sheds either. As Weisser put it: “Interdependence is the most fundamental fact of our era.”


  1. Warren King says

    Global agricultural trade is a powerful engine….for those in power. How well has subsidence corn farming in Mexico faired from NAFTA, or the primates of Indonesia from the development of palm oil plantations? The fact the US has built only one grain house in the past twenty five is not an indictment of the local food movement, but a consequence of subsidizing corn ethanol production. Today governments only intervene in the global food system when the violations are egregious; when people are either sick or dying. There is little evidence that global agriculture considers human health, animal welfare or environmental consequences when considering what and where to plant next. The considerations are largely based on how cheaply can it be produced, how many times can it be traded and how much can it be altered from its natural state to create other “foods”. It is also a very extractive system; I can’t think of a single parcel of land that has been “made better” by its use in the global food system. The system essentially uses up everything the land, animals, water and workers have to offer, putting only enough resources in to get the output that is desired. Mr. Weisser seems to believe it’s laudable, reasonable and of economic benefit for communities to “export commodities”, and “import food”. That the impact of climate change can best be managed by a global food market. I wonder what the twenty communities whose crushing plants were shuttered by Bunge think about that. Dependence solely on the current global system for our food is a major risk in the face of climate change. In fact it is not a system at all in many respects, since it tends to ignore the consequences of its activities on other living things, take into account their needs, and looks only to benefit itself. Better we put more effort and focus on developing local and regional food systems. Because it is only by creating systems that are robust, resilient and responsive that we have a hope of feeding ourselves in the face of climate change.

  2. Janice says

    Great thought prompter! It’s something I have thought about too. Living in the Midwest with big open fields around me, commodities like corn & soybeans are plentiful some wish those far,ers would rip them out and grow vegetables. Some farms are producing local fruits and vegetables now, I love it! I even have one that delivers to my office. But I think the idea that we need to go all local is naive. There are some things best done at scale and things that others benefit from a different environment. I understand how Californians think going straight to locavore can work, but for most of us a mixture of local & trade really seems best.

  3. Sibley says

    Yes, it’s highly location dependent – but here in the agricultural region of California, WE at least can improve our health and reduce our environmental impact by eating local. I’ve never seen any argument that refutes that, this article included.

  4. says

    Local food is good but as others have pointed out we need to make realistic assessments of what is done best where. Here in Vancouver Alberta lamb is highly prized but the total carbon footprint of that meat exceeds that for imported New Zealand lamb.

    There are many foods that are better produced in other places, but we need an improved method of balancing the total inputs of local versus transported foods.

    The total ‘full cost” of many foods would bother us more if there were effective pricing for carbon.

  5. Sam says

    Problem with this entire analysis is that it takes the situation as-is today and backs out a conclusion to support the as-is. Also it misses the fact that local food is a highly efficient and natural resource allocation and consumption mechanism.

    If you started properly at the beginning, you’d ask: why is local food good: why did we used to eat predominantly that way? Do that and dont get sucked into easy digs fashionable trends – instead think about cultures and peoples…and their growth. That is where you start to understand the logic.

    What do I mean? Well at the core of it local food is about two things: efficiency and harmony with nature. I dont mean this in a flaky way – I mean in the most practical down to earth way.

    First efficiency: if a community eats what they make locally, they are more likely to be efficient with the food they produce. If it is an animal, all parts of the animal are used, its not diverted to dogfood – we eat it. When was the last time you saw tripe or cowfoot or kidney in a restaurant or even in many major supermarkets. If the buying was local – you would. You’d have to. So local eating induces people to drop the “I dont eat crust” aspect that creeps into the entire food production system.

    Second harmony. Eating locally means respecting nature’s own capacity to support a population. If the populations of for example Las Vegas or Phoenix had to rely more on what is possible to make locally, well it would have a natural effect of making sure the population that resided there really NEEDED to be there. In effect we also reduce emmissions, resource use and waste from creating habitations that really are out of whack with nature in terms of their size and type of activity. If there are 450 million people living in poverty the desert, I’d suggest we focus on finding them opportunities elsewhere instead of trying to fight nature at a huge cost. Deserts are not natural population centers – its a sign that something is out of whack and we have not adapted. (I’d tack on more about blatant omission of free global movement of labour from our supposed global capitalist system where money moves from continent to continent in seconds and technology the same….but man – that’s another topic entirely)

    I dont mean this entire argument to end in a claim we should not trade food. But I am just pointing out that local eating is actually a very efficient and PROACTIVE mechanism for resource allocation and consumption. More so than the REACTIVE process of trading food after having made poor decisions about population size, location and eating habits.

    Not least when the mass-produced food that is traded also involves massive a environmental resource as it is basically monoculture ie a huge resource suck in terms of energy production, water consumption and mining involved in producing huge amounts of fertilizer, GMO seeds, weedkillers and so on.

    So please, lets try and get some more depth in the discussion. There is a lot beneath the surface and you cannot take these arguments at face value.

    • says

      Absolutely, Sam. I couldn’t agree more. Comparing against or with the status quo is fine as a data point, but let’s not make the mistake of thinking that it is inducted into the realm of unquestionable truth merely because it stems from how we do things now and what the current set of demands are.

      Feeding the global population is a very real endeavor that merits weight in how we make our food production decisions, but just because local growing (or organic, or permaculture, or vertical farming) can’t necessarily feed the world instantly doesn’t mean that it negates its positive contribution and results. Wind power can’t be harvested everywhere nor can it power the entire world, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make sense to pursue it to capture what we can.

      I just have to second Sam’s point about trying to grow populations in environments not conducive to human habitation. Cities like Dubai are misplaced resources that are staging a fight against nature that they probably can’t win. If certain places in the world can’t grow much of their own food, maybe those places should respond accordingly.

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