Monday, March 25, 2019

Why did local go global?

When discussing the food system, I find that few seem to understand why the system is like it is. Some discuss the system in a way where it sounds like Big, Bad and Ugly corporations made the system into what it is today, and all we have to do is to decide that we want a local food system instead. But that view is underestimating the drivers of the economy. My own experiences in food processing and farming has made me understand that the workings of competition ("the market") is the main factor influencing how and where production takes place.

Some thirtyfive years ago, the farm where I lived, Torfolk, wanted to pursue the value addition of local resources and we started making jam out of local berries. First we picked lingonberries - a North European berry similar to cranberries - ourselves in the forest. But quite soon we reverted to buying from pickers. But the buckets were full of bad berries, leaves, twigs and droppings from roe deer so we had to spend a lot of time cleaning them. We converted an old grain cleaning machine, but when the berries were really ripe and soft, they were mashed inside the machine, and it was impossible to get them clean. In addition, one of us got an involuntary exotic haircut, when leaning too close to the fan of the cleaner. 
Next solution was to buy from a local berry trader who had a purposely built lingonberry cleaner. But also with this one we had quality problems and ended up having to pick many leaves by ourselves. In addition, as most berry pickers know, the berries don’t grow equally well every year, there is frost in the florescence, it is too dry, too rainy or there is a pest, so we could not rely on the local berries alone. And neither could the local berry cleaning operation, so it closed down. 

Then we were left buying from one of the two big companies controlling the market. They have wonderful machines where each berry is individually quality frozen. Each berry rolls in dedicated tubes where size, color etc. is detected and anything that is not according to specs is blown away. The end product is amazingly clean and comes in 25 kg bags with free flowing berries.  Of course, this means that the berries now are transported all across the country, as such machines existed only in two places in the country. 
The local business is therfore now part of a global production system whether it likes it or not. And the same companies also trade in berries from China, Chile, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia. We could still get berries from specified areas – for a premium prices. The organic sugar in the jam was imported from Paraguay and the people picking the berries in the Swedish forest were flying in from Thailand. While we made no “local” claim on the label, many of our customers seemed to expect that the berries were local; some even thought we picked them ourselves. 

The story does give a rather good insight is why “local” disappeared. In this particular case, when it comes to physical product quality, the “globalized” standard IQF frozen berry is superior anything we could get locally, unless you think some moss and rotten berries should be part of the recipe. At the same time this kind of development has disconnected us, most of us, from the landscape and natural process that is the basis for human existence. In the end it has also changed what we eat, how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat – even why we eat. 

Mostly it is not quality concerns that drives the competition, but price or costs of production and the effects are in most cases not benign. I have written extensively about the effects of competion in food and agriculture in many articles, including

Competition, not consumption, drives global destruction

Milk: the global market works as it should - but we don't like the results



  1. Transportation of food is only 11% of food related carbon emissions and much of that is driving to and from the store. Far more important is what is eaten and how it is grown and processed.

    The main reason for choosing local food is so that one can better know how it was produced. I would rather buy grass fed beef from Argentina than local beef from a CAFO operation.

    Of course the best option is to grow the food one eats. One then has very little transportation cost and the option to use low-energy organic methods.

  2. Overall, we are in agreement Joe. Regarding emissions from transport, if we look only on CO2 emissions, the share of emissions from transportation increases very much as CO2 is a smaller part of all ag emissions. The recalculation of Nitrous oxide and methane to CO2 equivalents is more misleading than helplful. And the side effect of trade is that more chemical fertlizers are used, which is the main cause for nitrous oxide emission. In addition calculations of nitrous oxide emissions are very uncertain and they are variable and hard to influence short of nitrogen starvation. I have written extensively about methane on the blog and why the expression of methane into carbon dioxode equivalents is misleading. Therefore, to curb CO2 emissions from the food system is the most realistic and effective measure. and then transportation is a major factor, both directly and indirectly.