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Local and Fair Trade at the Crossroads

July 2008

A version of this piece originally appeared in Equal Exchange.

Grassroots International ally Phyllis Robinson of Equal Exchange recently wrote about the potential wedge driven between advocates of local foods (often called “localvores” in the current vernacular) and those working for Fair Trade. As she points out, Fair Trade and Buy Local advocates share many important concerns about the ways we can take back our food system so that it works best for small farmers and consumers, both locally and throughout the world – developing systems that promote food sovereignty.  For more information, read her article.

Despite my first blog entry, “Why “local” and “Equal Exchange Fair Trade” are two sides of the same coin” (read parts one and two), I must admit that I’m becoming a little confused by some of the Buy Local messaging I’ve been observing lately. I wholeheartedly support the goals of the movement as I understand them to be: reducing our carbon footprint, supporting local farmers, building healthy communities, reducing corporate control of our food system, etc. At the same time, I’m getting more nervous each time I see a simple formulaic solution being offered to resolve complex issues, such as food mile calculators, carbon-neutral labels, 100-mile diets, etc. I worry that if we’re not careful, the Buy Local movement will risk crossing the line that the Fair Trade movement stepped over, when the certifiers began eroding the vitality, richness (and yes, contradictions) woven into Fair Trade by reducing the whole set of values, principles and historical realities into the slogan: “look for the seal.”

We all understand information overload and label fatigue – and far too well. Still, I’d like to believe that there could be a balance between offering consumers salient points to help them make choices; finding opportunities to educate and raise public awareness about issues relating to agriculture, trade and the environment; and patronizing or misleading people by “dumbing-down” complex and difficult issues into simple solutions, formulas, and seals. Worse yet, is when we get stuck in “single-issue thinking” that flattens out the nuances underlying these issues and that has the potential to pit committed activists and community members against one another.

In the Feb. 25th New Yorker article, “Big Foot,” Michael Specter writes about carbon emissions. He comments on some of the efforts different individuals and organizations are grappling with to address the revolutionary changes in behaviors, policies, and laws that need to occur if we are to reverse the dangerous path we’ve been walking with regards to climate change. I really recommend this article to everyone who is trying to alter their behaviors, advocate for changes in governmental laws and push for corporate actions. I won’t try to summarize the article in which he presents a number of interesting new ideas, but suffice it to say, he also discusses half-a-dozen notable examples where due to “… land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season,” buying a locally grown or produced product is not necessarily inherently better for the environment. In fact, in the examples he cites, buying a particular product from another country and transporting it actually turned out to be more environmentally friendly than the option to purchase the product from a local source.

Eric Blair wrote an excellent article in the Charleston City Paper on April 30, 2008, entitled, “The friction between the fair-trade and local-first movements,” in which he presents the views of William Moseley, a geography professor at Macalester College in Minnesota, and Gawain Kripke, the policy director at Oxfam America. They are concerned about what seems to be a growing divide between locavores and Fair Trade enthusiasts. Blair writes:

Moseley believes fair trade presents a way for small organic farmers and food cooperatives to become economically viable in the face of competition from large-scale plantation farms. He’s seen this while studying a cooperative wine vineyard in South Africa run by about 60 black farmers. The cooperative provides its members with better health care and working conditions than the large-scale owner-operated vineyards and relies on wine exports to break even.

In November, Moseley wrote an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing the local food movement for being too insular. He did not reject the idea of eating local, but argued that conscientious consumers had to balance localism with an international perspective, one that included understanding our connections to the developing world. The response he received on some websites was openly hostile…

Gawain Kripke expressed similar views:

It’s important to parse out what the motivations are, and I think there is a worry that the local movement might turn into protectionism or a me-first-ism about our economic relationships, and that could be devastating for poor people in other countries who are really looking for a first step on the economic ladder and trading the things they produce, like agricultural goods, is one of the ways they can improve their livelihoods…

I’ll leave it to you all to read the two articles in full.

Fair Trade and Buy Local advocates share many important concerns about the ways we can take back our food system so that it works best for small farmers and consumers, as well as care for our planet. Let’s be careful not to create unnecessary wedges between the two movements who at their hearts and souls are trying to achieve the same goals. We need to work together, build one movement, and come up with creative and effective strategies. If not, it will be agribusiness – with their GMO seeds, harmful pesticides, and huge profits, that will continue to dictate how and what we grow, buy, eat … and live.

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