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Tom Murphy’s recent Humanosphere post highlights the apparent “dilemma” of the locavore movement, which advocates eating food that is produced locally and not shipped long distances to market. The “dilemma”, according to Murphy, is that by purchasing fresh and (often) organic produce, meat, and dairy from local farmers, we are inadvertently hurting poor farmers in developing countries who depend upon the global food production and distribution system for their livelihoods.

While Murphy acknowledges some of the consumer benefits of “eating local” – support for local businesses; decreased carbon footprint; reduced exposure to the ills of industrial food production – he fails to point out the negative externalities that “eating global” has on the producers it’s supposed to benefit.

  • Workplace regulations are often lacking or non-existent in many developing countries. Meat and produce farmers may not have access to appropriate safety equipment, leading to exposure to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals via inhalation, accidental ingestion, or dermal absorption of pesticides and other toxic chemicals used on the farm.
  • Weak environmental protection legislation in developing countries may result in the pollution of local waterways by agricultural runoff and dumping. As a result, local populations may be exposed to pesticides via ingestion of contaminated water. 
  • Developing country production of food animals, dairy, fruits and vegetables for foreign markets reduces the amount of foodstuffs and arable land available for local populations, adversely affecting domestic public health and land tenure.
  • American food animal production model, whereby corporation owns animals and all farm inputs, expanding to developing countries and reducing the autonomy of local farmers.

From this perspective, Charles Kenny’s assertion that buying produce from developing countries is “one way you can help poor people make more money” and “a good thing in its own right” looks pretty flawed. “Eating globally” is tantamount to supporting systems that promote environmental degradation, adversely affect public health, and disenfranchise small scale farmers in developing countries.

I don’t see the “dilemma”…

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3 thoughts on “Disputing the “Dilemma” of Eating Locally

  1. A Purdue alum gave a seminar on a related topic a couple weeks ago. He recently retired from over 30 years in the Army (where he started off as a medic) and has multiple higher education degrees (DVM, MPH, Ph.D). His assignments when deployed overseas was to educate the locals about proper food/water hygiene as well as taking care of their animals. He mentioned that the most challenging part of his job was to find and ensure that whoever provided the food produced/transported/stored whatever it is properly. His troops would not eat raw food or drink unboiled water until it was cleared. As it may be difficult to spread knowledge to farmers in developing countries where running water is likely not even an everyday commodity (and I’m including electricity and really the Internet to look up the latest safety restrictions), in-person training is essential, not only for downstream customers but also the farmer him/herself, and it is up to them to keep those practices when the trainers leave. The US has the FDA, but we still get imports tainted with pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella. Although our bodies can handle it, I personally would rather save myself from the grueling and uncomfortable hours of being sick. Bottom line, I think the question should be addressed from a health rather than a business point of view here – maybe that’s the scientist in me!

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