Local Food, Global Justice


Dan Hicks


April 14, 2013

I had the pleasure of attending the First Annual Workshop on Food Justice and Peace this past Friday and Saturday at Michigan State University, and at that workshop I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Navin of Oakland University. My talk offered a defense of local food from a radical participatory democracy perspective (this is often called communitarianism, though I dislike that label myself), while Mark offered a critique of local food from a (maybe) cosmopolitan, (certainly) global justice perspective. So we had plenty to talk about!

In this post, I’m going to focus on just one of Mark’s arguments, which he calls the argument from repair or the argument for compensation to developing societies. It runs as follows:

  1. Developed societies have harmed developing societies in ways that have contributed to their poverty.
  2. The most (only?) reliable way to alleviate global poverty is to increase the developed world’s imports of the developing world’s (agricultural) products.
  3. A duty of repair provides a moral reason for the developed world to increase its imports of the developing world’s goods (and not to exercise ‘food sovereignty’).
  4. The duty of repair may demand the sacrifice of valued personal or social projects. [Specifically, food sovereignty in developed countries, especially wealthy communities in such countries.]
  5. Therefore, the duty of repair may require the developed world to compromise its local food project.

In short, since developed societies got that way by exploiting societies that, today, are developing or “underdeveloped,” folks in developed societies have a strong obligation to support the development of developing societies. Insofar as this obligation conflicts with local food movements in developed societies, it seems that the local food movements must be sacrificed.

I want to focus here on an aspect of this argument that I didn’t get to discuss with Mark in person. Specifically, how do we understand the harm inflicted on developed societies, or more generally how do we measure well-being? Overall, Mark seemed to assume that we measure well-being through wealth. Developed societies are doing well insofar as they are very wealthy; developing societies are not doing well insofar as they are very poor; and developed societies have historically harmed developing societies precisely insofar as the former have become wealthier by taking the wealth of the latter and keeping them poor.

I agree that wealth is good, and so agree that, ceteris paribus it’s better to have more wealth than not and that the transfer of wealth from today-developing countries by today-developed countries was an egregious injustice.

But I also thinkthat some other goods are qualitatively more important than wealth, and that an exclusive focus on wealth is dangerous because it tends to lead to the sacrifice of those other goods for the sake of greater wealth. To be a little more precise, I’ll call a relevant set of non-wealth goods that I have in mind the goods of flourishing local communities. (A while back, I wrote this post defending local food in a non-technical way using these ideas.) In a future post (and perhaps even a paper), I plan to leverage this idea against Desrochers’ and Shimizu’s The Locavore’s Dilemma: their recommendations are overwhelmingly likely to lead to the sacrifice of the goods of flourishing local communities, in both developing and developed countries.

To be clear, when I say that the goods of a flourishing local community are qualitatively more important than wealth, I don’t mean that they are lexically more important than wealth, or in other words that it is always in all situations wrong to sacrifice the goods of a flourishing local community for the sake of wealth. For one thing, wealth is instrumentally valuable for maintaining a flourishing local community. So, when we are faced with a choice between (a) such desperate poverty that the local community is barely able to function and (b) a limited sacrifice of the goods of the local community, it seems like we have good reason to go with (b) over (a), at least for the short term. What really concerns me is the persistent and systemic sacrifice of the goods of a flourishing local community for the sake of wealth. This, I think, is where Desrochers and Shimizu would lead us.

I suspect Mark is much more sympathetic to what I’ve said in the last few paragraphs than Desrochers and Shimizu, so here I’d like to try to make a more subtle point. Among the goods of flourishing local communities are what I’ll call cross-cultural friendship. By this I don’t mean friendship at the individual level, e.g., having a pen pal in another country, at least primarily. Instead, I mean relationships among local communities, and specifically the kinds of relationships that promote the flourishing of these communities. At the community level, this is analogous to Aristotle’s view that genuine friendship involves reciprocal good will: our friendship is valuable to us because and insofar as both (a) I care about your flourishing and you care about mine and (consequently) (b) my flourishing promotes your flourishing and yours promotes mine.

In various places, Alasdair MacIntyre discusses a specific kind of cross-cultural friendship, one that involves the exchange of philosophical criticism in a way that promotes the development of the ethical traditions of both cultures. In response to Mark, I want to make a more materialistic point. First, certain kinds of global trade can promote the economic well-being of developing countries, but not the goods of their local communities. That much is implied by my criticism of Desrochers and Shimizu. Second, among the harms inflicted by now-developed countries on now-developing countries is the destruction of cross-cultural friendship. This I take to be well established by the history of colonialism. And third, local food movements in developed countries, as flourishing local communities, have the potential to repair this harm by creating cross-cultural friendships with flourshing local communities in developing countries. This requires, for example, purchasing coffee following fair trade principles: from plantations owned by workers as cooperatives that don’t use child labor and do use sustainable growing methods, paying a premium to transfer wealth back to the developing country, and so on. But buying Fair Trade alone is insufficient. Cross-cultural friendship also requires a certain minimum degree of personal contact between the local food movement in the developed country and the coffee plantation in the developing country. (We might call this “direct trade”, except that term means something else, which falls short of what I’m proposing here.)

Put another way, even transferring a significant amount of wealth from developed countries (back) to developing countries is insufficient to repair the qualitatively different kinds of harms inflicted on developing countries by developed countries. Repairing these harms requires promoting the local communities of developing countries in general and creating cross-cultural friendships specifically. Certification schemes, like Fair Trade USA, might go some way towards repairing these harms. But they’re primarily focused on economic repair. Community repair requires cross-cultural friendships between flourishing local communities in developed and developing countries. Local food movements, since they can stand on one side of these friendships, offer better prospects for a more thorough kind of repair.

All together, I think this offers a charitable challenge to Mark’s argument. The intellectual tradition of participatory democracy — especially by way of MacIntyre’s development of Aristotle’s ideas — is quite sympathetic to the argument from repair. But, compared to the egalitarian liberal framework within which Mark presents the argument, the more radical tradition offers a richer notion of the harms and goods involved and suggests better means for carrying out repair.