Home grown food better for developing countries, says new report

Posted: 25 November 2002

When people get together for celebratory meals this holiday season, much of their food will have logged more miles than their relatives and friends around the table, finds a new study by the Worldwatch Institute.

Food eaten in the United Kingdom now travels 50 per cent further than two decades ago. In the United States, food now travels between 2,500 to 4,000 kilometers from farm to table-as much as 25 per cent further than two decades ago.

"Everyone, everywhere is eating food from further away. The further we ship food, the more vulnerable our food system becomes," says Worldwatch Research Associate Brian Halweil, author of Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market. "Many major cities in the world have a limited supply of food on hand. That makes those cities highly vulnerable to anything that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages or acts of terrorism."

The value of international trade in food has grown threefold over the last four decades, and the tonnage of food shipped between countries has grown fourfold during the same period.

Fuel consumption

This reliance on long-distance food damages rural economies, as farmers and small food businesses become the most marginal link in the sprawling food chain. The trend also creates numerous opportunities along the way for contamination, while contributing to global warming, because of the huge quantities of fuel used for transportation.

"We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food. A head of lettuce grown in California and shipped nearly 3,000 miles to Washington DC, requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy in transport as it provides in food energy when it arrives," Halweil says. "By the time this lettuce is shipped to London or Tokyo, the ratio can be well over 100."

Surveys have shown that a typical meal-some meat, grain, fruits, and vegetables-using local ingredients entails four to 17 times less petroleum consumption in transport than the same meal bought from the conventional food chain.

While most economists believe that long-distance food trade is efficient because communities and nations can buy their food from the lowest-cost provider, studies from North America, Asia, and Africa show farm communities reap little benefit, and often suffer as a result of freer trade in agricultural goods.

Poor lose out

"The economic benefits of food trade are a myth. The big winners are agribusiness monopolies that ship, trade, and process food. Agricultural policies in most countries tend to favor factory farms, giant supermarkets, and long-distance trade, and cheap, subsidized fossil fuels encourage long-distance shipping. The big losers are the world's poor."

Farmers producing for export often go hungry as they sacrifice the use of their land to feed foreign mouths, Halweil says. Poor urbanites in both the First and Third Worlds find themselves living in neighborhoods without supermarkets, green grocers, and healthy food choices.

Halweil points to a vigorous, emerging local food movement that is challenging both the wisdom and practice of long-distance food shipping. "Mad cow disease, the advent of genetically engineered food, and other food safety crises have built interest in local food," he says. "Rising fuel and transportation costs, concern about the loss of farmland to sprawling suburbs, and a craving for some closer connection to the food we eat are also driving the movement."

Rebuilding local food economies, says Halweil, is the first genuine profit-making opportunity in farm country in years. Around the world, innovative restaurants, school cafeterias, caterers, hospitals, and even supermarkets are beginning to offer fresh, seasonal foods from local farmers and food businesses.

  • Japanese farmers now sell about 60 per cent of their produce directly to consumers, mostly through a network of 1,000 buying clubs, which now turn over more than US$15 billion annually.

  • In Zimbabwe, four housewives started a local peanut butter company that uses only locally grown nuts, and is seriously challenging-and underselling by 15 per cent-the dominant foreign-owned peanut butter brands in local stores.
  • Just a few years after the first farmers' market opened in Bath in 1997, the United Kingdom now boasts over 300. The number of farmers' markets in the United States has soared from nearly 300 in the mid-1970s to more than 3,100 today, and approximately 3 million Americans visit them each week and spend over $1 billion each year.
"Locally grown food served fresh and in season has a definite taste advantage," says Halweil. "It's harvested at the peak of ripeness and doesn't have to be fumigated, refrigerated, or packaged for long-distance hauling and long shelf-life." In the United States-a world leader in long-distance food-more than half of all tomatoes are harvested and shipped green, and then artificially ripened upon arrival at their final destination.

"Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial. But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local cuisines and crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary imperialism. And developing nations that emphasize greater food self-reliance can retain precious foreign exchange and avoid the instability of international markets."

Source: The Worldwatch Institute, November 21, 2002. Home Grown: The Case for Local Food in a Global Market costs $5 plus shipping and handling, and can be purchased through the Worldwatch website: or by calling 1-888-544-2303 (in US) or 1-570-320-2076 (from overseas) or by faxing 570-320-2079.