Upon arriving in Germany, I received many helpful tips and recommendations. Among these was the warning, “if you are concerned with the quality of your food, buy fruits, vegetables, and meat produced within Germany.” In Germany, most food products are marked with the country of origin. Whether buying Gurken (cucumbers) from Spain, Soy Sauce from Japan, or crackers with ingredients from a variety of countries, global food sourcing is ubiquitous in our international world. I found some surprising results after researching global food sourcing in America.
There are many advantages to integrating agricultural systems across the world. It leads to greater variety; in December 2011 alone, the United States imported $193 million dollars worth of fresh produce from Mexico. Importing allows countries to capitalize on growing conditions that are not available in their climate. In many cases, the transportation costs are actually cheaper or more environmentally friendly than growing domestically. Global sourcing decreases prices through specialization and consolidation. For instance, lecithin, a binding ingredient used in many processed foods, is extracted from soy in many large volume dealers in europe.
However, as food continues to be sought abroad and as price pressures continue to result in consolidation, trust and consumer confidence is degraded. Were you shocked that the Nutrigrain bar consists of ingredients from 8 or more different countries? Kellogg-Company must hope so, if consumers fear the unknown. However, the more important question: Is the fear justified? What are the true disadvantages of a global food chain?
Question of ethics:
International food trade resides in the power of a few corporations. Consolidation is a natural tendency when engaging in trade; the big players can buy the most at the cheapest price, and the largest producers can produce the most cheaply. In the United States and the European Union, many crops have been historically protected with subsidies. Small farmers lose in this situation, and developing countries lose something bigger, their food sovereignty. La Via Campesina, a grassroot response to the corporation of food, defines food sovereignty as the “right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. Global food procurement must be balanced with the protection of human sustainability.
Question of safety:
Outsourcing ingredients can be risky. It is difficult to control the content of outsourced ingredients; the inevitable lack of transparency must be countered with vigilant monitoring, however this does not always occur. I will consider the case of Chinese imports. As a precursor, food contamination occurs globally. China is just an easy example as imports are growing substantially, and China has lagged behind the United States in food safety regulations. Consider, 4000 pets died in 2007 from tainted dog food exported from China. The feed was intentionally contaminated to bolster the amount of protein in the feed. Other sectors have also had considerable problems. Honey is tightly regulated by the FDA; China has been known to use antibiotics in its bee farms that can lead to health defects in children. In order to evade import restrictions, Chinese manufacturers have been found to remove the Chinese pollen from honey and ship the product from nearby countries.
Question of health:
Global food procurement changes the structure of agriculture in foreign countries. Pepsi grows potatoes in Mongola. McDonalds sources chicken abroad. Foreign direct investment is usually beneficial to the economies of both countries involved; however, it can have ill effects when agriculture is concerned. For instance, obesity and chronic disease rates soared in the Philippines after the introduction of western food. As the agricultural structure of places like Mongola changes to suit the tastes of the west, the traditional diet is likely to be altered. This may be detrimental nutritionally, but will also lower prices and stabilize food supply.
We need new business measures for our food supply. Measures that encompass not only profit, but equitability, human and environmental sustainability, quality, and sufficient quantity.
How do you think the US should respond to these issues, in both a business and political sense? Do the advantages of increasing global food procurement outweigh the disadvantages?