Global Food Trade in Perspective
by Dave Grace -- January 12th, 2015
Food trade is not a problem. However, a global food system is highly problematic. Nation states administer taxes, tariffs, and often delineate lines of conflict. However, the nations are not primarily the concern so I will not discuss international food trade much. Rather, the concern of global food trade is mainly politics and good taste.
in the sense of focusing on human perspective
The global food trade process starts with commodification where if it looks like food X and tastes like food X, then one unit X can be equated with a monetary value on the global market. Food X can be abstracted from place and ‘local’ significance. Corn and soybeans are traded in the same way that gold and silver is traded in the same way that oil and natural gas are traded– as they are global commodities (what are the top global commodities and where do they come from / where do they go).
With food it is worth noting that the process to make a relatively standardized product required long-term human effort which is of a different kind than human rendering of crude oil or gold. In a word, this effort is called domestication. For most of agricultural history, domesticated plants and animals were reflections of a close relationship between humans and plants within particular places. Recent industrial agriculture and more recent genetic modification is loosening the ties of crops to specific people within specific places and reducing the number of different types of crops. This has a social and cultural impact, characterized by the term monoculture.
Specialization and commodification for global trade also raises political issues, which pundit Vandana Shiva emphasizes. When a nation is dependent upon another nation for its food supply, there are clear political ramifications. Critics of the Green Revolution point to issues in food sovereignty, as power is tipped even further into the hands of the industrial power when it has the seed bank for the non-industrial nation’s staple crops under lock and key. The transnational corporation, Monsanto, owns 90% of GM crops internationally (Sujatha Byravan, Council 4 Responsible Genetics), entailing corporate control extended from its US base.
WWII can be seen as a case study of the connection between food security and national security according to Lizzie Collingham’s book called The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food (here). This is a ‘soup to nuts’ study where food is considered the driver of the war. Germany is portrayed as in pursuit of a larger food supply; Russia is described as destroying its food supply to thwart enemy invasion; and the US is shown to ration at home and provide it in plenty for its soldiers.
The US push for food as fuel for the fight is certainly palpable in WWII propaganda such as this.
I’m not an economist but… I know absolute advantage and comparative advantage can be used as foundational concepts to support international trade.
Absolute advantage was described first and can be more easily understood. Ecuador can produce bananas easier than the US in all aspects (that I know of) so it has an absolute advantage in banana production to the US.
As a side note, I heard a story about a NC farmer growing bananas by digging them up each winter and bringing them into a greenhouse for the winter. Or read here about other cold hardy bananas (low or no fruit) growing in Lee County, NC.
Comparative advantage is more complex and not so easily understood. It suggests that you can have an absolute dis-advantage — you cannot grow bananas without tremendous cost/effort — relative to somewhere else but by trading you can turn relative weakness into a collective strength. You need to use at least two crops to illustrate this. Lets say Ecuador can produce both bananas and sweet potatoes cheaper/easier than NC (USA), but NC can grow sweet potatoes without giving up as much banana production as Ecuador would. Comparative advantage — theoretically — says NC and Ecuador can produce and eat more bananas and sweet potatoes if NC grew sweet potatoes and traded them with Ecuador and Ecuador grew bananas and traded them with NC.
This is good math but is it good eating?
You may notice that my argument culminates in an ecological section as the ultimate and clarifying lens to view the topic of food trade. I admit this is due to my disciplinary bias, but I also think it is a justified move since if we are not viewing food in terms of interactions that are fundamental to life we are making a fundamental mistake.
Ecologically speaking, the food system should not be primarily defined as a set of global commodities if we are to judge the human food system against the larger ecological food system which begins and ends with the processes of net primary production and decomposition, such as depicted in a food web.
There are certainly non-human animals that eat food that has traveled long distances, such as is the case with bears and their intimate role in the iconic life history of Salmon. However, most dying and eating takes place within ecosystems; Nutrient cycling takes place and perpetuates the system. An ecosystem certainly relies on external inputs and produces outputs. However, the external inputs are renewable – principally the sun – and the outputs are dependent on the health of the system.
This consideration of agriculture within an ecological framework seems basic.
However, the logic of industrial agriculture is more linked to the factory than to the farm… let alone the ‘logic’ of the ecosystem. Industrial agriculture’s model of externally-sourced, nonrenewable inputs to create commodities for export – which do not cycle back into the system – evokes assembly line production. Further, in the case of the US ‘bread basket’ the development of this type of agricultural system functionally created an inert substrate from what existed as thick soil teeming with life.
The discipline of agroecology is seeking to relocate the farm within the ecosystems they are situated.
Using only the economic theories of comparative and absolute advantage suggests there is no reason to grow bananas for food in NC. However, the NC farmer who grows bananas probably does so for a reason. I would imagine it is because they are interesting as well as a joy to grow. There is something appealing about it, I think, perhaps because it is so appalling to our expectations of possibility. What is that… a banana… here??… with fruit too!
Food trade is a means of cultural exchange as well as nutrition exchange. Human relationships span the globe, which suggests implicit global food trade. However, a global food system presents problems associated with scale. There is a significant clash between the scale of human social networking and economic activity and the scale of functional ecosystems. The latter is important to consider in its role as the foundational support of human and non-human life.
The advent of widespread internet access and/or phone access in the hands of some of the most food insecure people globally suggests connectivity with ‘poor service’. This dilemma – of strengthening mass connection simultaneous to acute disconnection – posits food as requiring a different sort of relationality with humans than what is required for the exchange of wireless information measured in bits.
As the food system is vital to human life on the planet, we should be thinking about it as life blood circulated from its center: this perspective reveals the heart as the soil. Global food trade, where it exists, must serve to enrich the places it involves at the most foundational levels.
Above all, food traded globally must have a good aftertaste.