Eating local is clearly a good idea and makes environmental sense. However, like many other good ideas, it can have unintended negative consequences.
First and foremost it’s important to acknowledge that if the main reason for eating local is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a diet high in local meat and animal derived products, has a much higher carbon footprint than a vegan or vegetarian diet based on imported foods.
A surprisingly unknown fact is that sea freight, which is responsible for the transportation of 90 per cent of international trade, accounts for only 2.5–3 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (compared to 14.5–18 per cent from animal husbandry). Hence, rice trucked from Southern Europe to Northern Europe, can generate more greenhouse gas emissions than the same product sea freighted from Thailand. Unfortunately in most consumer’s minds, a product coming from thousands of kilometres away must therefore have a higher carbon footprint than one coming from nearby, when it’s not always the case
Aside from the exact carbon footprint one food item has versus other, the main point this trend is missing out is the fact that millions of households in the developing world are able to make a living thanks to global food trade. From counter-seasonal temperate fruits like grapes, blueberries and citruses, to tropical year round staples like bananas or pineapples, a great number of communities in poor countries rely on consumers in the rich world demanding their products to continue lifting their populations out of poverty.
Peru is a case in point. In 2004, 58 per cent of its population was poor while its agricultural sector exported US$1.316bn worth of products. In 2017 its agricultural exports soared to US$6.255bn and its poverty levels dropped to 20%. Peru’s economic miracle couldn’t have occurred without its agricultural exporting industry. Currently, close to 30 per cent of Peruvians are employed in the agriculture sector. And Peru is just one example amongst many. Ecuador supplies around 28 per cent of the world’s bananas and generates employment for approximately 380,000 workers. With 3.8 persons per household, this means roughly 8.5% of the population in Ecuador earn a living thanks to banana exports.
And the list goes on. The relentless demand for Hass avocados in Europe is filled by Peru, South Africa or Kenya during the summer season, while during the winter, Mediterranean – i.e. local sources like Israel, Spain and Morocco – supply less than 10 per cent of the market’s demand. The remaining 90 per cent is coming mainly from Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Dominican Republic. Mangoes found in Europe tell a similar story. Brazil, Peru, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal are the main sources of this prized fruits.
There is no question that there are social and environmental issues that must be addressed in these exporting industries, but stopping consumption is by no means the solution. Pushing for better conditions for workers and more environmentally sound agricultural practices is necessary. But let’s not forget that to achieve the first three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 – no poverty, no hunger, good health and well being – it will be crucial that consumers in the rich world continue to demand food products that come from overseas.