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The cost of a global food chain

Global trade has made the food we eat cheaper. But there's a price to importing food from faraway lands: It increases pollution, alters traditional diets and hurts local farmers.

October 20, 2010|By Robert Gottlieb

Check out the garlic the next time you're in the supermarket. In another era, it might well have been grown in Gilroy, right here in California. But today, chances are that your garlic has traveled across oceans and continents to get to your kitchen.

Most garlic nowadays comes from China. Since 2003, the amount of garlic imported from China has nearly tripled, while the amount grown in California has dropped by nearly half. This means that instead of traveling several hundred miles to get to you, your garlic is probably traveling many thousands.

Moreover, the ships that carry the garlic from China utilize highly toxic bunker fuel that in turn is likely to have come from Venezuela. The big container ships take on the fuel in South America, then travel across the Pacific, where they or other ships pick up the garlic in China and then sail back across the ocean to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There, it is loaded on trains or trucks, which in turn create additional diesel pollution. The environmental impacts are global, and they are particularly concentrated in each of the destination points, whether in China or here, where ships, trains, trucks and warehouses are located.

So why have we shifted to purchasing Chinese garlic? Even with all the transportation costs, it's cheaper than garlic grown here.

But your savings in the supermarket undercuts farmers in places like Gilroy. Moreover, the Chinese garlic doesn't have the taste or texture of locally produced garlic. And it adds to our trade deficit, contributes to American unemployment and undermines our connection to the food we eat.

The increasing globalization of food commodities isn't just a concern in the United States. In China, PepsiCo — through its Frito-Lay division — has successfully introduced that quintessential American product, potato chips. It has done so, in part, by adhering to Chinese restrictions on what can be introduced into China. The Chinese won't allow crops produced elsewhere to be imported, so Frito-Lay now grows potatoes in China. "PepsiCo is not a farming company. But to build a market, we had to take extra steps like this," the operations director for PepsiCo's China venture told the Wall Street Journal.

With potato chip products like Frito-Lay's "green tea potato chips" joining other fast food products that now flood Chinese stores, the diets of people in China are changing dramatically. One result: Nearly a quarter of the population is overweight or obese, conditions that were virtually unheard of a generation ago. The Chinese are not as obese as we are yet, but they're on their way.

Food has become a global product. That has meant we can sip Chilean wine with our French cheese. And it has meant nothing is ever out of season: We can buy peaches in January and Brussels sprouts in August. But at what cost?

We hear a lot about the benefits of global trade, which has made the food we eat cheaper. But moving food thousands of miles from farm to market increases pollution, alters traditional diets and hurts local farmers. In Carson on Oct. 22-23, an international conference will explore some of the consequences of moving goods such huge distances (for more information, visit http://www.theimpactproject.org).

One thing, though, is abundantly clear: Food is intricately bound up with culture, and when we lose our connection to locally grown food, we also lose a piece of our culture. It's time to begin reconnecting with what we eat.

Robert Gottlieb's latest book, just released and coauthored with Anupama Joshi, is "Food Justice." He is the director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.

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