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Millions of Americans are embracing the mantra “Think Global, Eat Local”: buying from local farmers, eating organic meats and dairy and using more seasonal ingredients. The so-called “locavore” movement grew out of a critique of globalized, industrial agriculture. But Charles Kenny says our “First-World food fetishes” are actually hurting the world’s poorest people, by suppressing scientific innovation and threatening agricultural jobs in developing countries. We examine what it means to be a globally conscious grocery buyer.
- Charles Kenny Senior fellow, Center for Global Development; Author, "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More" (Basic)
Have the benefits of Locavore Eating Been Oversold?
Over the last decade, food lovers and public health advocates have placed a new premium on eating fresh, seasonal produce and meat from nearby farms. Today, Restaurants tout their relationships with local farmers. Farmers markets are expanding across the Washington region. City governments are experimenting with new ways to bring fresh, local produce into urban “food deserts”.
Can You Change the World By Changing What You Eat?
Many see this renewed focus on local food as an antidote to the excesses of American industrial agriculture. But is it really possible – or advisable – to rewire our global food economy by changin what we buy?
Charles Kenny says “no.” In a recent essay in Foreign Policy Magazine, he says our “First-World food fetishes” are actually leading to bad public policy that may end up hurting the environment and poor people in the developing world. Specifically, he argues that:
- Fears about genetic modification (GM) can lead to bad public policy:
Particularly in Europe, widespread skepticism about GM crops leads to policies that prevent innovative science that could help increase agricultural yields in the developed and developing worlds.
- Globally-sourcing creates opportunities for developing economies:
Over the last decade, the West African country of the Gambia has increased its exports of fruit and vegetables to the European Union by 25%. That food has a bigger carbon footprint than crops sourced closer to Europe, but has created economic opportunities for a poor country.
- Green is in the eye of the beholder:
Focusing on a product’s carbon footprint can be misleading. A piece of lamb raised in New Zealand travels thousands of miles to end up in your grocery store. But locally-raised sheep may have hidden carbon footprints and other environmental costs (for example, the feed for livestock might be imported).
Is Local Better?
WAMU 88.5 Reporter Sabri Ben-Achour recently explored the complex math of determining food’s environmental impact (Via Metro Connection). He found that “delivery from farm to market is about 4 percent of all the emissions it takes to produce food in the U.S. By one estimate, 83 percent of our carbon footprint for food happens before that food ever leaves the farm.”
Kenny cites a controversial academic study, which found that it was four times more energy efficient for British consumers to buy lamb from New Zealand than from domestic producers. Many food advocates have disputed that report from Lincoln University in New Zealand, questioning its methodology and noting links between the researchers and the country’s export industry.
What Do You Think?
- Do you place a premium on buying local?
- Can you have a positive impact on the world by changing what you eat?
- What does it mean to be a globally conscious grocery buyer?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a mantra of the local food movement: think global, buy local. Sure, the global food industry is really good at bringing you cheap tomatoes and strawberries in December, but that global industry also leaves a lot of collateral damage. Those strawberries travel thousands of miles by plane, train and automobile, leaving a big carbon footprint.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd the global companies that engineer the seeds and raise the livestock aren't always forthcoming about the risks and environmental impacts of their practices. The local food movement emerged as a sort of alternative to that globalized industry. Today, millions of Americans are shopping at local farmers' markets. They're paying a premium for organic dairy and locally raised meats, and they're eating at high-end restaurants that tout their relationships with local farmers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut Charles Kenny is worried that our new enthusiasm for local organic agriculture is morphing into a kind of First-World food fetishism. Charles Kenny joins us in studio. He is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." Charles Kenny, good to see you again.
MR. CHARLES KENNYThanks for having me again.
NNAMDII'll invite you all to join this conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. What do you think it means to be a globally conscious grocery buyer? 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question and -- or make a comment there. Charles Kenny, in a sense, there's nothing new about the local food movement.
NNAMDIAmericans have always grown their own food. They've always seemed to enjoy fresh seasonal produce from local producers when it was in season. But over the past couple of decades or so, a broader movement has emerged as a sort of critique and alternative to global commercial agriculture. You, however, have been skeptical about whether buying local is really the solution to some of the problems they diagnose.
KENNYYeah. I don't want to go too far on the other direction. I've shopped -- the Whole Foods is about 300 yards from where we sit, and, you know, I've been seen at The Yards' farmers' market. So I don't want to sound like this is all terrible.
KENNYBut I do think that we have to be a bit concerned when people claim that organic, local, nongenetic, demodified food is always the best for you. It's always the best for the environment. And it's always the best in particular for the planet and for poor people on the planet. And I think, you know, the answer to whether it's the best or not is -- well, that depends, right? So, you know, take organic.
KENNYThere's no real health evidence that it's better for you. It is certainly more expensive to buy, and that's partially because -- despite the fact on test farms, organic has shown itself to be as productive as conventional farms, which use, you know, fertilizers and so on -- inorganic fertilizers and so on -- in real-world situations, it doesn't seem to be as effective. It's sort of, you know, 10 percent less productive, give or take.
KENNYWe know that it's a lot less effective in Africa. Most African farms are -- prefer organic because they don't have access to fertilizers, and they are a lot less productive in terms of yield. So the amount of labor and the amount of land it takes to produce the same amount of food is a lot higher in Africa than it is in the West. So, you know, the idea that organic is the solution to either, you know, local or global food shortages and expense, I think, is just wrong.
NNAMDIWell, one of the more compelling arguments about eating local comes down to fossil footprints. If I eat dairy products from, oh, Montgomery County's agricultural reserve, it only travels a couple of miles from where it was made to my home, and, as a result, a lot less fuel is used than if it's made in France and shipped over here. But the actual map of energy efficiency is actually very slippery, isn't it?
KENNYIt's horribly complicated, and it does depend. I think probably if you were eating something that grows here naturally in its natural season here, you are probably eating something with a fairly low carbon footprint. But change any of that, and the map, as you say, gets very complicated. So the example I mentioned in the article, the New Zealand lamb is actually -- has a smaller carbon footprint if eaten in Britain than does British lamb.
KENNYAnd the reason is, yeah, you have to ship the lamb all the way from New Zealand, but British lamb is fed on food that is itself imported. And, you know, for every 10 kilograms of meat, you need 100 kilograms of food to produce that meat. So you're importing a huge amount more animal fodder than you are -- final animal. One way or the other, you're importing the animal.
KENNYIt's just whether you're importing it in the final form of meat or the sort of original form of fodder. And so when it comes to tradeoffs like that, it gets more complicated. Again, if you're growing strawberries in this climate, in this time of year, you're growing them in hot houses. And you have to build a hot house, and you have to heat the hot house. And again, that takes a lot of energy. So it depends what you're eating, where you're eating it and when you're eating it.
NNAMDILet's go back to the New Zealand lamb study for a second because some food writers have questioned that noting the researchers had strong ties to New Zealand's export industry. What do you say to those?
KENNYSo I think it is -- this is a terrible area for the fact that a lot of the research is financed by people with an ax to grind, if you will. I believe that study. Just, you know, I've looked at the sort of underlying evidence presented, and I believe that study. But I do accept the point that -- and, in particular, you know, agro industry has a huge ax to grind, and I have a big problem, for example, when it comes to genetically modified crops that companies like Monsanto are not releasing nearly enough data for us to be able to really properly verify, you know, health concerns and so on around GM crops.
KENNYNone -- no serious health concerns have emerged to date, but that's partially because it's been very hard to do good research on this because companies are keeping back things they claim a trade secret, which is making it hard to do proper analysis.
NNAMDIYou can find a link to that New Zealand lamb study on our website, kojoshow.org. We also -- find a link to WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour's report. He recently explored this question on Metro Connection. Among other things, he found that transportation accounts for about 4 percent of all the emissions it takes to produce food in the U.S. By one estimate, 83 percent of our carbon footprint for food happens before that food ever leaves the farm.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join that conversation or this conversation, call us at 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Do you think the benefits of eating local have been oversold? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, to join the conversation there. I guess we should be careful here not to caricature or simplify the local food movement because, for some people, buying local just means trying to cook seasonally and shop at the local farmers' market every week. For others, of course, it means a slightly more radical lifestyle change.
KENNYAbsolutely. And, again, I think if you are buying food that is, you know, natural to the environment in which you live, and you're buying it in season, I think you may well be doing the environment a favor. You know, again, it depends on a whole of -- other factors as well. How is that food produced? It's produced in a very mechanized farm or not. You know, it gets very complicated.
KENNYThere is certainly no easy answer. I would say, though, that buying produce from particularly developing countries is one way you can help poor people make more money, and that is, you know, a good thing in its own right. So, you know, while you're being concerned with your carbon footprint, also be concerned with global poverty.
NNAMDIIn a sense, you're an unlikely partisan in these food fights. You're an economist, and your most recent book focuses on what you just talked about here, the plight of poor and marginalized communities in developing countries. And so when you look at the way we talk about food, what do you see?
KENNYWell, let's take GM crops as an example, genetically modified crops.
KENNYThere's a huge row in the States and in Europe about whether we should allow -- whether we should eat GM crops, whether we should allow them to be grown. And in Europe, they've moved pretty much to an outright ban. Not only that, they moved to a ban on the import of GM crops from other parts of the world, and there's increasing pressure to move towards a ban on importing any crops from any country that produces GM crops, even if the crops imported aren't GM.
KENNYGenetically modified crops -- we're way too early to know everything about them. As I mentioned, I think we need much more transparency from the companies that are making these crops. Having said that, natural techniques to create new seed varieties involve irradiating plants, for example. So it's not -- you know, we're not in an area where previously we were doing something that Mother Nature would approve of.
KENNYAnd now, we're doing something different. We've been away from Mother Nature for quite a while. And GM crops have shown themselves to increase productivity in real-world situations in the developing world, and particularly if you look at cotton output in Indian GM crop -- GM farms. They're just higher, right? Our productivity is much higher. So they are part of a solution to improving the productivity, and that means the incomes of farmers in the developing world, in some cases.
KENNYAnd an outright ban means that they can't take advantage of this new technology, and new technology is what drives improvements in the quality of life. You start saying people can't have new technologies, we're all back to the (word?) times.
NNAMDIIn a way, you're arguing that we're contributing to their continuing impoverishment. In the piece you wrote for Foreign Policy magazine, you described the impulse to buy local and buy non-genetically modified food is, quoting here, "First-World food fetishes that are positively terrible for the world's poor."
KENNYYes. That was a very strong line.
NNAMDIOh, no need to defend that line because, I guess, you'll get a lot of arguments from our callers. We'll start with Jeffrey in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFREY O'HARAWell, great. Thanks very much. Mr. Kenny, my name is Jeff O'Hara. I'm an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. And I do feel like you've mischaracterized or presented, you know, the notion that people need to make better food product choices as mutually exclusive for the world's poor. I mean, I think if you look at, you know, what we're doing here in the U.S., we're not eating enough fruits and vegetables to begin with.
JEFFREY O'HARASo we need more fruits and vegetable production to occur from somewhere. And I think what your article completely misses the point on, or mischaracterizes, is that the context in which people make shopping decisions can greatly influence what they end up buying. And research has found that people make better and healthier food product choices. They buy more fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets than they do at supermarkets.
JEFFREY O'HARASo to the extent that a significant percentage of fruits and vegetables can be supplied from locally -- local sources during peak growing season is actually going to be the best thing for the environment 'cause, actually, eating less processed food and relatively less processed food would be the greatest thing that we could do to actually reduce the energy use of our food system.
JEFFREY O'HARAAnd so I feel like some of those points were completely missed in your column, which is really unfortunate because, I mean, you -- I think you say that people that are proponents of local foods are trying to demonize, you know, conventional food systems. But I feel like your article went the other direction.
KENNYWell, I apologize if it came across as demonizing an entire industry. I didn't mean to do that. And I completely take your point about processed foods. In a way, the ultimate processed food is meat in that, you know, the animals process the grain they eat. And this country, and increasingly worldwide, we're eating too much meat, not only for own health but for the sake of the planet. It's a very inefficient form of getting nutrition. So I'm definitely in favor of people eating more fruits and vegetables.
KENNYAnd if more farmers' markets providing, you know, again, local food in season is part of the solution to that, great.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, Jeffrey seems to suggest that if we are all eating more healthily, then it will reduce our footprint, our -- I'm blanking here -- our carbon footprint overall in the world. How, however, does that affect farmers in the Third World? Does the suggestion that if we eat more healthily, that means that we should be eating more locally, strike you as being necessarily logical?
KENNYWell, one thing is a lower carbon footprint is good for the developing world. In the -- if you look at the climate change forecasts, it's going to be developing world agriculture that takes the bigger hit. So dealing with climate change is a good thing. I'd agree that we don't want to go too far the other way in that. It has been one of the great successes of African exports in the last decade, is exporting things like flowers and high value fruit to, in particular, Europe.
KENNYAnd I'd hate to see that stop because, I think, it really is an important part of the way African farmers -- and they tend to be amongst the poorest people in Africa -- African farmers get to make more money. So, again, it's a -- you know, it's a -- there are tradeoffs here. And, again, it's why it comes back to -- you know, this is a very complicated question. It's not only tradeoffs about which form of eating is the best for your health and which form is the best for the environment. There are tradeoffs between health and the environment and poverty.
NNAMDIJeffrey, what do you say about that?
MR. JEFFREY O'HARAWell, I think those are fair points. There are certainly tradeoffs, but I mean the beginning of the article starts at the -- you know, starts by attacking the notion of farmer's markets right at the outset and federal support for farmer's markets when, really, what the -- you know, what the majority of the food that's sold through those types of markets are locally sourced fruits and vegetables when they're seasonally available.
MR. JEFFREY O'HARASo, I mean, I feel like, you know, there's maybe a little bit of a contradiction with what we're talking about now, and what -- you know, the way that this article starts off, which is really a critique on the notion of using, you know, federal policy to help promote, you know, healthier food product choices, when actually what we've seen over the last several decades in the U.S. is subsidies going -- you know, being completely misdirected.
KENNYI'd certainly accept that. The bigger subsidy problem in the United States is not subsidies for farmer's markets. Although, you know, maybe that's a discussion for later. But the bigger problem is definitely subsidies for, you know, things, like ethanol, which is ridiculous, taking food to make it into an inefficient form of fuel, a lot of which is then used to drive the combine harvesters to collect food again. It's just nuts. I mean, it's some of the most anti-environmental and physically irresponsible stuff we do in the States, so no question about that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jeffrey. We're going to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on line. We will get to your call. You should know we're talking to Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have the benefits of eating local, in your view, been oversold? What does it mean to be a globally conscious grocery buyer? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation about thinking globally and shopping globally compared to thinking and shopping locally. We're talking with Charles Kenny. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think ethical grocery shopping looks like? And do you think that buying local has a positive global impact? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIMany of the countries, Charles, that export food and vegetables to the United States are what you might call middle-income countries -- Mexico, Colombia. But in Europe, it's African countries that are benefiting from new export opportunities. Can you give us a sense of who produces what, and where it goes?
KENNYMany African countries produce a lot of different crops. For a long while, Southern Africa, including Zambia, Malawi, were actually exporting a lot of flowers. We've seen mangoes being exported. We've seen a whole range of crops from different parts of Africa. One of the interesting things is how fast it moves, the countries that -- one year with the most efficient produces the flowers. The next year, some other countries looks and says, oh, hang on, they're making lots of money exporting these crops.
KENNYWe're going to try that, too, which is, as it happens, good for the Western consumer, right? They get their flowers for less money. And it does, actually, lead to -- we get more competitive, more productive farms in Africa. I think it's a win-win.
NNAMDIOver the last decade, the West African country of Gambia has increased its fruit and vegetable exports to the European Union by 25 percent, to 123,000 tons. How significant is that?
KENNYIt's not going to make, you know, Gambia as rich as Luxemburg. It's an important step towards making the Gambia -- agriculture in the Gambia more productive. And creating a cadre of people in Gambia who know about exporting and how to work with buyers in Western markets and so on, which is important beyond agriculture. It means that they're more likely to break in to manufacturing exports and so on and so forth.
KENNYGetting on to that production chain, getting into the sort of global markets teaches you a huge amount -- not, again, just about the product you're exporting, but about other opportunities and other products you might export -- more ways to make money.
NNAMDIWe visited Haiti last year, and we heard about some small-scale development projects being funded by USAID designed to help build agricultural capacity in Haiti. One of the ideas is to help Haitians export mangoes to the U.S. What kind of opportunities do you see for a country like Haiti?
KENNYI do see an opportunity. Although I have to say that the thing that the United States could have done that would have been most important to Haitian agriculture is not dump a huge amount of massively subsidized rice on the country.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. We heard a lot about that while we were there and saw a lot of that massively subsidized rice, too.
KENNYRight. And, I mean, it's a real problem. It's not to say that you shouldn't help people who don't have enough to eat -- of course, you should -- but there are much more effective ways of doing that than exporting rice from America or dumping, as -- again, you know, dumping it on Haiti. One thing is you give the poor Haitians who need more food, money. Then they can go out and buy food, and some of it would be local. Locavores does have its upside, especially in the developing world.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Aaron in Richmond, Va. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONWell, hi. Going back in the commercial and big food business in America, I, for a long time -- actually, at Starbucks and the fact that they have a donut maker out in Seattle, that they had a long-standing relationship with and bring their donuts into all their Starbucks stores' locations by airplane and by freight and what kind of impact that would be having on the planet and the United States with food production -- consumption?
KENNYI shouldn't claim to be an expert in donut transportation. But I would say that, quite possibly, there were economies of scale, if you would, greater efficiency in producing all your donuts in one place rather than having a lot of little donut manufacturers all over the country. I don't know, but that's, you know, something that certainly holds true for a lot of other products, including other food products, that if you have one very big place producing that product, that food, it can be more efficient than having lots of little places producing that food.
KENNYThere's actually a huge row in the agricultural community over whether small farming is more or less efficient than large farms. It partially depends how you're defining efficiency, and, again, partially depend on the farms. Small farms tend to use more labor per acre, if you will, which, on the one hand, can be a good thing. It creates jobs. On the other hand, if the way that -- if the farmers own the land and they're a small farmer and it takes more labor to produce a given an amount of crops, that effectively means they're going to be poorer than if they were working on a big farm for somebody else.
KENNYSo it's a -- you know, a complicated debate, but, you know, to your basic point, sometimes it's more efficient to produce food somewhere else. Quite often, it's more efficient to produce food somewhere else and truck it in than it is to produce it locally.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Aaron. We move on to Mike in Silver Spring, Md. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi, Kojo, and good day to you guys. I would like to know how the gentleman addresses the problem of the idea that we really are selling systems of agriculture to these various poor countries. For instance, in India, where there are -- there have been documented 1,000 suicides by small farmers who adapted seed from the Monsanto company and then could not afford the debt that they had to go into to actually irrigate seed, which didn't do as well in their dry climates.
MIKESo -- and then that same seed was propagated in Haiti, and the Haitian farmers wisely chose not to accept that. So I'm wondering, you know, this -- you know, it sounds really good at first, but they -- you know, this is complicating things, I think, and there are a lot of different things that need to be addressed here.
NNAMDIIndeed. If you watch the Sunday talk shows, Mike, we get bombarded with messages about how agri-business companies are making life better and more sustainable for poor people often through genetically modified plant crops. Now, we know crops now -- we know that those messages are often self-serving. But some economists have, as you've mentioned earlier, tried to measure the impact the genetically modified crops can have in developing countries.
KENNYYeah. I think that you -- Mike, to your point, being a small farmer in the developing world is probably, you know, one of the toughest jobs out there anywhere. You are quite often really on the very margin of subsistence. Any shock -- bad weather, somebody getting sick in your family, somebody dying, you have to pay for the funeral -- all sorts of different shocks can really throw you off and put you in, you know, sort of below absolute poverty, if you will, in a situation where you're making incredibly painful choices, like, do I keep my kid in school or do I have them work on the farm?
KENNYDo I have -- give decent food to one member of the family, so they're strong enough to do hard work, or do I sort of spread the food out more broadly so that everybody stays reasonably healthy? Really horrible tradeoff switch, and we are incredibly privileged in this part of the world. Very, very few us face such trade offs. Putting -- changing agricultural practices is the kind of thing that can create additional risks. It can also create additional opportunities, so it can be a force for making farmers richer so that, less often, do they face such horrible tradeoffs.
KENNYNow, in some cases, you do it wrong, and, indeed, you do, I think, increase the risk of putting people into absolute deprivation. So, you know, we need to be careful, and, you know, I don't know about the example you're talking about the suicides in India. If, however, you know, misleading marketing led people to make a wrong choice, I think that's bad, and we should deal with that misleading marketing. I think that's slightly different from saying, you know, we should abandon GM crops.
KENNYThey are more likely to throw more farmers into the situation because I think the evidence overall is where GM crops have been used. Quite often, they have had a positive impact on productivity, and that means on the incomes of poor farmers in the developing world.
NNAMDISo should the company like Monsanto be considered a development organization?
KENNYNo. They should be considered a company out to make a buck, and we should treat them accordingly. And one thing, I think, is a big problem with the way that some of these large agribusinesses work is the way that they treat sort of the intellectual property behind the scenes, if you will.
NNAMDIIndeed. We have an email from Beth in Washington, who says, "If you believe genetically engineered food is a great answer for feeding the planet's poor, then would you not also agree that corporations like Monsanto should drop their patents on these food-like products so that the crops can be grown economically?"
KENNYThat's -- and that's an interesting question. I think the problem with that is we have a system that encourages innovation by giving people property rights to their innovations. So I think just saying, you know, drop the property right is -- would be a tough thing to say. I do think that they -- that Monsanto and other agribusiness -- businesses have a responsibility to make sure, at the very least, that we can independently verify tests about safety and environmental impact.
KENNYAnd, also, I would hope that, much like many drug companies now give away drugs that deal with developing country health issues, that, maybe, you know, some agribusinesses would realize that, actually, this could be part of a successful overall...
KENNY...strategy to make money to give away some of -- give away some of these crops.
NNAMDIMike, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe move on to Max in Ellicott City, Md. Max, your turn.
MAXGood afternoon, Kojo. I listen to your show every day. It's a great opportunity to make a comment today and ask a question. I'm originally from Haiti, and I currently work in agribusiness in U.S. in the produce business. And one thing that I noticed in Haiti -- I just worked for a poultry farm in Haiti. And once we start getting frozen products from the United States, it literally kills the poultry industry in Haiti.
MAXNow, as far as all the help we are getting from the USAID, the help needs to be in terms of empowering farmers and just like -- your guest made the comment earlier about helping those farmers have access to bigger markets, like Canada or U.S. For example, you know, winter crops such as, you know, vegetables -- like in California, there is no vegetables during the winter. Everything moves down to Arizona or Mexico.
MAXIf we can have the same access in Haiti, I think, this type of help will literally help poor farmers in Haiti, whether to co-opt not just some big companies having their own packing houses and doing business in Haiti but to co-opt and really empowering people in Haiti. That's my comment.
KENNYI absolutely agree. I mean, if the -- why it is that it is much more expensive because of tariffs in order to get Haitian products to Minnesota in mid-winter than it is to get my products from Miami to Minnesota in mid-winter when the distance is almost the same? And that is an unfair barrier to Haitian farmers trying to make a living. So, in a way, we've really done a double harm to Haiti.
KENNYOn the one hand, we've been exporting our crops to Haitian -- to Haiti at prices way below cost, and yet we've been excluding Haitian farmers from our market. So I agree with you that dealing with that problem will do a huge amount of good for Haiti.
NNAMDIMax, thank you very much for your call. On to Christopher in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Christopher, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTOPHERThank you, Kojo. I just have a quick question. It kind of has to do with Monsanto and seed patents. And I'm kind of wondering if whether or not, you know, maybe farmers in the Third World would have to deal with some of the issues that other farmers had to deal with where Monsanto or another corporation would find a seed product then take over their property claiming it to be theirs because they do not own said patent. And I'm wondering if this would become a problem in the Third World where Monsanto was starting to use some of those patented seeds.
KENNYI do think it's a real issue that these seeds sort of remain a property almost to the agribusiness, including what the seeds grow into, and I do think these are issues that really need to be tackled. And one thing I'd say is it means that it's important that we help regulatory agencies in the developing world get stronger, get more -- able to deal with these rather complicated issues. And that means, you know, including the ability to stand up to global agribusiness, and that's not easy. But it should be an important part of the process.
NNAMDIOur guest is Charles Kenny. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, and he's the author of "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." 800-433-8850 is our number. We'd love to have you call us or send us email to email@example.com. What does it mean to be a globally conscious grocery buyer?
NNAMDIHave the benefits of eating local been oversold? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the global effects of eating local so to speak. We're talking with Charles Kenny. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author of the book "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." We got this email from Joe in Catonsville that says, "Food system too complex for most, so buying from a local or regional farm or from a farmer in France or China or Mexico?
NNAMDI"The issue is not where or who, but the long-term impact on the local and greater economic system in total. All things being equal in this complex system, local and in-season is best. Mass produced shipped great distances is least desirable." And that is the dilemma, isn't it?
KENNYWell, you can't actually get away from the fact that it's complicated. Yes. I think that is the dilemma. So, for example, if you're buying local, the farmer is still going to be using a lot of equipment that was probably -- a lot of it made in China nowadays. The -- even the organic farmers are using fertilizers. They're just using organic fertilizers that can be, you know, chopped-up chicken bones or whatever.
KENNYWe don't know where they came from. They could have come from across the country. We live in a global economy. There is no getting around that. And so a lot of the inputs, even of your local produce, come from a long way away.
NNAMDIOne more question before I get back to the phones. If you have called, stay on the line. I will get to your call. Some of these benefits about -- some of the questions about the benefits of local organic and free-range agriculture have been raised by others. For example, food historian James McWilliams has written some provocative pieces asking whether free-range pork is less safe than pork raised using industrial practices. A lot of people making those arguments end up being accused of either using bad data or being shields for the industry, but it does seem to be a legitimate argument.
KENNYYeah. I mean, it turns out that raising pigs is a pretty disgusting activity, whichever way you do it, right? The sows can often end up eating their young and so on. So it's not for the fainthearted one way or the other. I don't, I have to admit, know about the particular (unintelligible).
NNAMDIYou're an economist after all.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll go to Joe in Fairfax, Va. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Joe, are you there? Joe may have walked away from the telephone. I'll put Joe back on hold while we go to Kimberly in Midland, Va. Hi, Kimberly.
KIMBERLYHello. Hi. I totally disagree with your guest on so many levels about so many things, but I'll just stick to one. I have a co-op. And we have 17 different farmers that bring in their products, all locally grown. Most of them raise their products using labor instead of equipment from China or things like that. They also fertilize their food by using manure from local -- other local farmers or from their own farms. They bring it in as classified organic.
KIMBERLYAnd we have customers that flock to us by the thousands every year. They're looking for organic food because their doctors are insisting. They have irritable bowel. They have cancer. They have everything else. And buying food from a country that's been imported thousands of miles, that we have no idea how it's raised, is causing these illnesses. The doctors are very adamant about clean food. I don't understand why your guest thinks that there's no benefit to eating organic food.
KIMBERLYAlso, the non-GMO grains are the best to use. Those are the ones that came down through centuries of natural selection and growth. These grains from Monsanto, we have no idea what they're going to do to our bodies. We do know that they propagate into other fields in Monsanto to tax those farmers because they were saving their own seeds, causing multiple lawsuits, especially the Midwest, and putting those farmers out of business as well as seed saver, cleaner people. I mean, I could just go on. I think your guest is totally wrong on so many counts.
NNAMDIWell, let me ask you one question, Kimberly. Our -- Kimberly, our guest is an economist. He is not a farmer. He is not an agricultural expert. And his thesis seems to be about whether or not we are concerned about helping the poor in the rest of the world and, in particular, poor farmers in poor countries. Is that a concern of yours?
KIMBERLYI feel -- it is a concern of mine, but I also feel for the poor in this country. We help so many people every weekend after whatever we have there has been sold. And my nearest town is Warrenton. I pick cases of leftover vegetables, pies, whatever we have. They're all used with organic materials. There are so many people going hungry in this country alone. When are we going to start taking care of our own people? Their food needs to stay in their country and feed their people.
KIMBERLYNot only are the farmers in India killing themselves because of the grains, they can't even sell the product. And this is because the International Monetary Fund has said, hey, we'll make you loans, but you got to sell your product on the global food system. And this area where this has happened, they have known (unintelligible) for the very first time in centuries. Even though they...
NNAMDIKimberly, allow me to interrupt you and not only have Charles Kenny respond, but if you've been listening to this broadcast, you know that we have done, well, gazillions of programs on the benefits of buying and eating local. At least, that's what most of our panelists seem to feel. What we decided to do today was to try to kick the tires a little bit with Charles Kenny and to question the logic that we ourselves have been presenting to you for some time, and nobody better to do that than Charles Kenny.
KENNYKimberly, you know, thanks. I can't sort of -- you said many interesting things, and I can't tackle of them. But I would suggest, sort of on the health impact, the reason that I'm not terribly convinced by the health impact is because the Food and Drug Administration says there's no health impact. And I have to trust them on that because, you know, I'm an economist, not a doctor. So that's where that opinion came from.
KENNYWhen it comes to grains being produced by natural selection, actually, most non-GM grains are not produced by natural selection. They've been marked with over the last 40 or 50 years. Quite dramatically, again, to say that the usual technique before GM was to irradiate seeds a lot and see what happened after you irradiated them. So we've been marking with crops through a lot of history. And just on the issue of, you know, which poor counts, our poor over their poor, I think that the level of poverty in this country is shocking.
KENNYAnd, personally, I'm in favor of a lot higher tax rates on a lot of people as part of the solution to that in this country. But just a statistic, if you allow me, the poverty rate in the United States comes down to approximately $13 a day. It's hard to come up with an exact number, but $13 per person, per day, is, give or take, the average income of somebody living in poverty -- sorry, line, you know, the highest line.
KENNYNinety-seven percent of people in Africa live on less than $13 a day, and a good minority of them are living on less than $1.25 a day. Those people are poor in a way that we just can't understand in the United States. And I do think that, you know, despite the fact that they're half a world away, we do owe them, you know, some thought in our actions.
NNAMDIKimberly, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Abbey Anne (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Abbey Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ABBEY ANNEHi. The conversation about Africa -- you know, Africa isn't poor in terms of the food production necessarily because of the arid nature of the continent, but because of corruption. If you look at a country like Ethiopia, you're feeding millions, hundreds of millions. They happen to be Indians, Chinese, Saudi Arabians, Qataris. Those are the four nations that take most of the land and farms and have all these deals with Ethiopia.
ABBEY ANNEThat is just one country. It's not the only country that does it, but that is mostly associated with hunger, famine and those horrid images 20 years ago and from last year and from this month. So, you know, the whole description that Africa, you know, is poor because of the resources -- I mean, Africa really is wealthy enough that it should be giving more, if you will. And just out of note, the caller before was absolutely right about the IMF. Side note: Jamaica has to important bananas.
ABBEY ANNEYou know, there's a lot of other things that are going on, but corruption is the main reason. And I'm not saying that, you know, other factors aren't involved, but that it can feed its own people if there weren't corruption. I'll take my answer off the air, and thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAbbey Anne, you should know that Charles Kenny was not affiliated with the IMF. He was affiliated with the World Bank. Some people tend not to make that distinction, but we do. Charles Kenny.
KENNYI have great respect for my colleagues, you know. The -- Abbey Anne, I think you're absolutely right. Africa can feed itself. Indeed, Africa does, by and large, feed itself, but it could be a huge exporter of agricultural products. If land productivity, if yields went up, Ethiopia, actually, in that case, is a success. One of the silver linings, if you will, to the tragedy earlier on this year of the famine in the Horn of Africa is that it didn't affect Ethiopia.
KENNYEthiopia saw a few declines. It had problems because there was a drought. But there wasn't a famine in Ethiopia, and that's partially because of all of the things that have changed in that country since those terrible pictures we saw, you know, 15 years ago. So Ethiopia, in a way, is an African success story when it comes to agriculture, and especially when it comes to feeding its people. And we're seeing that success spreading across the continent.
KENNYYou know, Malawi dramatically increased grain yields over the last 10 years, for example, partially by using more fertilizer and so on and so forth on its crops. A whole bunch of government interventions helped farmers produce more food. So, definitely, Africa has the potential to be, you know, breadbasket to the world. And, you know, I hope that by thinking sort of more globally about how we eat in this country, we can help Africa become the breadbasket to the world.
NNAMDIIndeed you are what we might call a development optimist. In your latest book, "Getting Better," you make the case that major progress is being made in the fight against global poverty and disease even if the numbers sometimes look bleak. You take a country like Liberia, where per capita income may have fallen by 80 percent in the last 30 years, on the one hand. On the other, Liberians have seen a huge improvement in other measures: lowered infant mortality, increased life expectancy, more girls in schools.
NNAMDIIn short, you make the argument that life is getting better for the poorest of the poor, even if that story is largely untold.
KENNYAbsolutely. If you look at the global evidence on the percentage of kids in school, it's gone up dramatically over the last 50 or 60 years. The challenge now is to make sure they actually learn something when they get to school. If you look at mortality rates, they've dropped by -- child mortality rates have dropped by almost a half just since 1990 worldwide. Huge progress everywhere, not just in, you know, the countries we normally think of as successful developing countries like China, but the Liberias of the world, even the Haitis of this world, have seen improvements in health and education.
KENNYMany have seen improvements in civil and political rights and so on and so forth. It's just -- it's a happy story, overall.
NNAMDIIn the book, you argue that we need to look beyond gross domestic products and per capita income to get a full picture of how successful international development initiatives have been over the course of the past 30 years. At some point, however, the world population crossed the 7 billion mark, and that is, for me, a mind-boggling number.
NNAMDIFor much of our history, our thinking has been -- about population, anyway -- has been interested by the ideas of Robert Malthus that we would eventually grow too large to feed ourselves. Much of the story you sketch is about how we seem to have outpaced Malthus' expectations or his predictions.
KENNYYeah. Indeed. And I think the, you know, agricultural industry, for all its faults, has got a huge role to play in that positive message. Now, look, all else equal, presumably most people like people, and so would think more people is good. More people means more friends, means more family, you know? Basically, more people is good. Malthus' concern was that if you had more people, those people would have to be poor because there's only a given amount of, you know, land.
KENNYThat means a given amount of agricultural produce. You have more people. They each have to share that same amount of product. Well, we've just shown that wrong over the last 200 years. We've got -- I think when Malthus wrote, we had about a population of a billion. We've now got seven times that. On average, they are far richer. They're living far longer lives. They're far more educated and so on and so forth. They have more civil and political rights.
KENNYBut not just on average. For the vast, vast, vast majority of the 7 billion population, they're better off. They're better educated and so on and so forth. We have way fewer absolute number of poor people today than we did 20 years ago because of dramatic economic growth worldwide, you know, including in Africa. Africa has seen some of the fastest growth rates anywhere in the world over the last 10 years. So it's just a -- it's a huge -- and, again, it's a hugely positive story, and it really says, you know, Malthus is just wrong.
NNAMDIWell, from the global, we circle back to the local and Lawrence in Westmoreland County, Va. We're running out of time, but, Lawrence, you have about 30 seconds.
LAWRENCEWell, hi, Kojo and Dr. Kenny. You all have really struck a nerve on this topic, and certainly ag politics are fertile ground. But I reject your characterization that eating local has been oversold, or the benefits of eating local has been oversold. I'm an organic farmer, and I'm on the board of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. And that's a group whose members are on the forefront of the locally grown movement.
LAWRENCEAnd, you know, we see firsthand how the growth of farmer's markets is bolstering rural economies and strengthening small-family farmers. It's also preserving farmland in the urban sprawl. So that's basically what I wanted to say, and also to thank you for, you know, discussing this topic.
NNAMDIAnd in that -- in many ways, Lawrence, you get the last word on this broadcast because we're just about out of time. Thank you very much for calling, and, Charles Kenny, thank you so much for joining us.
KENNYThanks for having me.
NNAMDICharles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. He's the author of "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More." And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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