Globalization Article #1: Cash Crops, Cruelty, Malnutrition, and Rising Food Costs

For today’s post I am writing about something very important to me. I warn you it will not be the light topics I typically write for this blog. I plan on writing a series of posts on the topic of globalization. Globalization has had and continues to have countless consequences on many different aspects of our lives. It is generally a contentious topic that has its fair share of people debating its effects. There are people who adamantly support it, citing its positive effects on global trade and international relations between countries. There are many that are vehemently opposed to globalization arguing that it hurts our domestic economy and prays on the emerging economies of developing nations.  In my series of essays I will attempt to stay objective and present both sides of the argument supported by facts, but I warn you I do have a strong opinion on the issue and it will become very evident when you read my articles. I am not an absolutist though, so I believe there are aspects of globalization that are positive but there are some effects of the globalization movement that I find to be completely criminal.

Today’s post will focus on globalization’s effect on local farming, food supply, food costs, and the increased rates of malnutrition in areas effected by cash crops.

Once upon a time, not so long ago farmers in a community grew and produced food to be sold in that community. This typing of model is known as subsistence farming.  If that communities’ staple food was rice, then the farmers grew rice. If the people ate potatoes and corn then that was also grown in the community, for the community. The food was typically sold at local markets or in a local store. By buying from the local farmers you supported these families in the community. Prices were generally low because there was a good supply and it did not have to transported far. The farmers had guaranteed customers in the community and the community had guaranteed food. The negative side of local farming if you were limited by your climate and season for food. This meant that you did not get oranges in winter and if you didn’t live in the tropics then you may never have tasted a pineapple or coconut.

The invention of ships, trains, and automobiles allowed food to be shipped further distances. Suddenly there was a wider variety of food available to people who had the money to purchase it. These expensive imported foods and spices supplemented the food supplied by local farmers, but locally grown food was still the main staple of most people’s diets. The invention and wide use of airplanes changed this dynamic forever. Suddenly food and other products could be quickly transported thousands of miles away and sold at higher prices.  In the 1990’s with advent of the internet, decreasing costs of flights, low cost of international calling, and the creation of World Trade Organization ( WTO) in 1995, Globalization was now in full swing. The United States and other members of the WTO were all required to dismember domestic protectionist policies and tariffs in order to encourage open free trade between all nations. These factors have led to where we are now in 2013. You may not know all the facts and politics, but the reality is that globalization affects all of our lives every single day. Your cup of coffee in the morning (Columbia), the clothes we wear (china), the car we drive to work (many components of even domestic cars are made in Japan and china), the fact that many of our jobs have changed because of the shift of manufacturing to other countries with cheaper wages and less regulation. The tomatoes in your salad during lunch ( chile), your Pina cola smoothie with pineapple (Philippines) and coconut (brazil).  Without even knowing it, our daily routines can have monumental effects on people’s lives thousands of miles away. Our consumption of a product can define and affect an entire group of people’s lives.

Globalization, free trade, and the growth of multi-national companies that control the vast majority of farming have changed the paradigm of food production around the world.  Subsistence farming has become a thing of the past and cash crops are now destroying the biodiversity and food supplies of many areas. Farms that once grew an assortment of different foods for its local communities are now producing one specific high profit crop that is exported out of the area to places around the world that will pay higher prices. Some of the popular cash crops are cotton, pineapple, coconuts, coffee, grains, sugar cane and many others.  In response to changing international markets many independent local farmers choose to convert their normal vegetable crops to a more profitable crop.

I have seen the effect of this type of cash cropping personally. I was born and raised in Sonoma County, California. One hour north of San Francisco. Sonoma/Napa is one of the leading areas for wine making in the country, and produces wine that wins awards all over the world. If you go to the countryside you will see vineyard after vineyard for as far as the eye can see. Our little area has become famous for our superb wines. The wine industry brings tourism to the area and has created jobs at the wineries, shipping centers, tasting rooms, hotels, restaurants, and the list goes on. There is one major downside to Sonoma /Napa’s success; wine grapes are replacing vegetable and edible fruit gardens and farms. I love wine, but you can’t live on it.

Vegetable crops harvested from local farms have decreased by about 850 acres, or 50% of the total acreage between 1997 and 2000. One of the hardest hit industries is apples. I went to High School in the town of Sebastopol. Apple farms used to be an important part of that community. The local elementary school that my siblings went to was called Apple Blossom Elementary. Every year the town of Sebastopol has a wonderful parade called the Apple Blossom Parade.  Everything about the town used to be centered on the apple industry. As the wine industry got popular the apple orchards have slowly been replaced by vineyards. At one time more than 13,000 acres of apple orchards blanketed Sebastopol’s countryside. Today less than 3,000 acres of apple farms remain.  I understand why the farmers convert their crops from apples to wine grapes. The honest truth is you make a lot more money selling wine grapes than apples or vegetables. A farmer selling one ton of Sonoma County grapes will make $2,000 on average, while a farmer selling apples only gets $120 per ton. Food production in Sonoma County is dwindling and as a result we have to import food from other counties, states and even other countries to feed the people locally.  I find it both sad and ironic that two-thirds of the U.S. apple juice supply now comes from China! We stopped growing the food locally and now we have to import it from across the world. Imagine the fuel that is spent shipping food from China to the USA! Not to mention the fact that when food is grown and processed in another country the US people have no say in the regulations that govern everything from food hygiene, pesticides, genetic modifications or anything else associated with that food. The thought of pouring my daughter a glass of apple juice produced across the world under un-known conditions makes me ill. Overall 15 percent of the U.S. food supply is imported, including 50 percent of fresh fruits, 20 percent of fresh vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

 

High profit cash crops effects people in developing nations to a higher degree than those effected in the United States. The example I provided about Sonoma County’s dwindling vegetable and fruit crops does pose a problem to the people, but in most cases people will not go hungry because of it. We are a wealthy nation and food can be imported in when an area stops producing it. This is not the case for many places in the developing world. There are many people that go hungry because food production stops in favor of higher paying cash crops that do not go to feed the people.

In my introduction earlier I stated that there are some aspects of globalization that I find to be completely criminal. The business practices of the American fruit companies Dole and Chaquita are absolutely disgusting. They manipulate and use other countries to make a profit, even at the costs of lives. Historically they have preyed on developing nations in South America and use money and influence to bribe or manipulate these poor governments. Many Latin American countries have privatized previously public land that was farmed by locals for food. This land was then leased or sold to US-based multinational corporations. This completely destroyed these people’s basic ability to farm and feed themselves. These companies use the land to cultivate bananas for export.  The locals are hired as low wage laborers. The company exports the produce to higher paying developed countries like the United States and Canada.  Lack of local food and poor wages makes eating more difficult for the local people. The bananas are sold at a price competitive in the developed world, but unattainable to poor locals. Unlike the United States were food is easily imported in, remote areas of South America do not get such imports. People actually starve in an area where thousands of tons of food are produced. In the past resistance to this privatization was often met with brutal repression, including kidnapping, torture, and murder. Not to mention the countless substantiated accusations of death, illness, and infertility cause by the pesticides and chemicals used on these fruits. The governments of these people are bought by the rich companies, so in reality there is no one to protect the locals. Similar tragedies occur in the coffee, cotton, sugar cane as well as many other industries in regions of South America, Africa, and Asia.

Cash cropping aided by free trade and globalization is destroying the lives of thousands of people in the developing world and is leading to countless cases of malnutrition and even starvation. In a recent report from the International Monetary Fund ( IMF) it found that the price of food has increased 45% since 2006, while wages in these countries have remained the same. Entire countries are being affected by higher food costs caused by the dwindling local supplies of food. In many areas families are only able to buy 50% of the food they had in the past. Imagine only buying 50% of what your family eats now. 

So I am going to ask you an honest and straightforward question.  Is your morning cup of coffee worth the suffering of thousands of people? Is your ability to eat oranges in December worth the life of a family? Do you feel comfortable knowing that the banana you feed your children is tainted by such cruelty? The truth is I don’t feel comfortable with any of this! I feel disgusted and sick researching the topic. This is why I wrote this piece. I think most of us take for granted the effects of globalization on the world. We personally see the availability of food in our stores and restaurants without thinking about where that food came from, or what effect it had on other people.  Sadly I don’t have a complete solution to give to my readers, all I can say is stay informed. Buy local when possible. Look for the fair trade seal. Research the companies you support with your money. Speak out in any way you can. I personally love bananas, coffee, coconuts, pineapple and so many other things that are not produced where I live, but I will not support a company that puts profit before human life. If that means forgoing those foods, then so be it.

I personally believe The United State’s government needs to do more to keep companies like Dole and Chiquita accountable to basic human rights. Just because a company is working outside of The United States, does not make those people affected any less human. If The United States does not require its companies to be ethical and humane abroad then as a nation is has no right to intervene or even comment on other country’s cruelties or human rights issues. People in developed nations need to realize how our consumption affects people around the world. How does it make you feel to learn that someone may be hurting or hungry so that your family may have a wide variety of foods to choose from? I ask one more time. Is it worth it?!

 

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