Doing the Fair Trade Free Trade Cha Cha
Food Issues Book Club - The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 11

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 11:
Trade, Fair Trade, and Workers' Rights

Howdy Peter.  Howdy Jim.  Let us talk of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.  Or, you know, about Trade, Fair Trade, and Workers' Rights, the eleventh chapter of your book The Ethics of What We Eat.

My primary impression of your discussion of trade is that you don't actually know what you're talking about, followed closely by an annoyance with the philosophical method - that is, to discuss ideas in a vacuum rather than address how things actually play out in the world.  I'm quite curious as to how you got through this chapter without mentioning the profound (negative) effect that Free Trade agreements have had on food and agriculture.  You seem to be of the mindset that international trade is good for individuals, rather than only being of benefit to corporations.  You are, so sadly, dead wrong in this belief.  Let's be clear: free trade is good for those who are already wealthy and powerful, and bad for everyone else.

To illustrate this erroneous belief, you point to the example of the Del Cabo cooperative, which "stands as an ethical alternative to the idea that we should only buy locally produced food."  Your own words belie the fact that Del Cabo is the exception to the rule:  "While many Mexican farmers are selling their land and going to live in the nation's crowded cities," you state, "the Del Cabo farmers are staying on the land... If Americans were all "locavores," the small farmers of Del Cabo would still be living in poverty and almost certainly still using pesticides and chemical fertilizers - unless they had sold their land for tourist developments."  This can only be true under a very specific set of circumstances.

If Staters (ahem) had always been locavores, those farmers would never have gone into farming to start with, or at least not with those crops or a dependence on trade for sales.  Also, if we somehow all magically become locavores overnight, but continue to purchase imported goods for which we've gained a taste because they can't be grown in the states (such as many of the tropical fruits grown by Del Cabo), this argument falls apart.  Finally, I can't help noting that the cooperative was started by some white saviors.  I'm glad it worked out for the Mexican farmers in the end - that's not frequently the case.

You refer to economists who bolster your view that free trade is good.  In the study you reference, "they conclude that a reformed and more open system for trade in agricultural commodities would, overall, 'reduce rural poverty in developing economies, both because in the aggregate they have a strong comparative advantage in agriculture and because the agricultural sector is important for income generation in these countries.'" Wowza.  Can we look at the number of qualifiers there?  Reformed.  More open.  Overall.  In the aggregate.  Comparative advantage.  Treating this as a foregone conclusion is a bit absurd.

Concluding your section on free trade, you state that "there is a strong case for buying from the least developed countries, at least when it comes to products transported by ship or plane and when a significant proportion of the purchase price is likely to end up in the hands of low-income farmers."  Seriously?  I dare you to go into the grocery, pick up a piece of produce that came from another country, and determine whether that specific item traveled by ship or plane and how much of its purchase price gets back to the farmer who grew it.  That task is beyond daunting with all the time, knowledge, and research power in the world; I notice that you didn't even attempt to do this for any item purchased by any of the families featured in this book.  For an ordinary shopper, who likely has maybe an hour a week to complete the task of buying their family's food, it is utterly impossible.  This guidance has zero practical application.

Essentially, y'all are just being silly here.  Free trade, in its ideal state, may look good on paper - to those who look at economic trends rather than the lives of individuals, anyway.  But since when has anything in the real world functioned ideally?  Particularly, since when does anything in our food system function ideally?

I am relieved that we seem to be on the same page about the importance of Fair Trade.  When I first learned of the conditions under which cocoa and coffee - totally unneeded luxury products - are produced, I was aghast.  I still am, and I'm thankful that there is a relatively trustworthy certification scheme that allows me to occasionally purchase these unnecessary but delicious products without contributing to such atrocity.

My jaw may have actually hit the floor, though, when I saw y'all promoting Chiquita bananas.  You explain that 43% of Chiquita's bananas are now produced under Social Accountability 8000 standards.  Of course, that means that 57% of them aren't, and there's no way for a consumer in a grocery store to determine whether or not they were.  I do not think that a less than 50/50 chance of a bunch of bananas being grown in not-the-absolute-most-terrible conditions is basis enough upon which to declare that "buying Chiquita bananas is the next best option" to buying Fair Trade.  I also don't think that a company that engaged in oppression to the point of slavery for over a century now gets a free pass - indeed, an endorsement - for cleaning up a bit.  I would argue instead that, if you can't find Fair Trade bananas and can get by without them (which certainly most of us can), just don't buy any bananas.

I appreciate that you wrap up this chapter by explaining that buying goods harvested or produced in the US does not, by any means, mean that the laborers involved were treated fairly.  The United States treats its agricultural workers shamefully - a fact of which many vegans should be more aware.

I'll be writing again soon.


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