Some experts are beginning to question whether locavorism is an effective solution to ensuring food security on a warming planet
By Emma Bryce
In the early months of 2008, a drought in Iran decimated a quarter of the country’s annual wheat crop. Devastation of a staple grain on this scale risked widespread food insecurity. So Iran fell back on an age-old human institution for help: trade. Between 2008 and 2009, the country purchased an estimated 8.5 million tons of grain (roughly half its usual annual output) from 15 countries, making it the world’s largest importer of wheat at that time.
More than a decade later, the event symbolizes the benefits of globalization: a case where international cooperation and fluid markets averted a climate-driven catastrophe. “It’s a very typical example of how trade allows us to mitigate extreme weather events, which we know will take place increasingly in the future, with a much greater intensity,” says Sandy Dall’Erba, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the United States.
Despite this, in recent decades the term “globalization” has become unwelcome in many conversations about food. Instead, calls to “buy local, eat local” have dominated the discourse, taking hold especially in wealthy, Western countries. The resulting locavore movement—founded partly as a counterpoint to the globalization of food supply—is based on the principles of relying on smaller, regional producers; generating healthier, lower-emissions produce by condensing the distance between farm and fork; and insulating food systems from international shocks. By contrast, the global food trade seems to embody all the worst aspects of modern consumption—relying on emissions-heavy transport to get food around the planet, perpetuating the consumption of unseasonal produce, and displacing diverse local production with monocropped goods from far away.
This narrative, however, is gradually shifting—and in some cases even being turned on its head. It’s not that eating locally isn’t healthy, community-oriented, and delicious. Often, it is all those things. But experts are beginning to question whether locavorism is an effective solution to monumental environmental challenges, such as ensuring food security across the planet in the face of climate change.
Starting with the premise that few countries can be agriculturally self-sufficient due to limitations of climate and geography, researchers are building a body of research showing that global food trade will become increasingly important under the vagaries of climate change. The question is: Can free trade help us adapt to climate change, without unduly contributing to it?
Under our current trading system, if temperature increases reach 4°C, 55 million people will be undernourished globally by 2050.
With freer trade, the number of undernourished people under climate change drops to 20 million worldwide.
Charlotte Janssens thinks it can. A researcher in agricultural trade at Belgium’s Univer-sity of Leuven, she created dozens of global maps of food production, studying how they would change under multiple combinations of future climate-change predictions and trading regimes. Her maps revealed that more extreme climate change will lead to large declines in food productivity in climate-vulnerable regions such as Africa and Asia. That wasn’t altogether surprising. But what caught her attention was that under restrictive trade scenarios, these nutritional black holes will only grow larger. In those scenarios, regions already vulnerable to climate change also had to struggle to import much-needed food.
In 2020, she published her results in Nature Climate Change. If global temperature increases reach 4 degrees Celsius, and we maintain our current trading system, by 2050 there will be 55 million undernourished people globally (mainly in Africa and Asia), Janssens found. If trade restrictions were then tightened further—meaning higher tariffs on imports, making food more expensive to trade, and slowing its passage around the world—that number would increase to 73 million. The upshot, Janssens says, is that “if you impose [trade] restrictions, they can really increase the hunger effects of climate change.”
On the flip side, her analysis revealed that more-liberal trade scenarios—where food moves more freely across borders through reduced or eradicated tariffs—can increase the necessary flow of nutrients to regions struggling with declining local productivity under climate change. In fact, with freer trade, the number of undernourished people under climate change drops to 20 million worldwide. This suggested her hunch was right: trade can play a mitigating role against the effects of climate change. “We were very excited about the initial findings, as they suggested important policy implications,” she recalls.
Janssens isn’t the only one who sees the real-world implications of these results. Many studies have made the case that free trade is an adaptation we desperately need in a warming world. According to a 2015 research paper published in Food Security, if trade barriers increase, then by 2050 global undernourishment could rise by a quarter. A year later, researchers from Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research determined that the global economic losses resulting from climate change’s impact on agriculture could be reduced by 65 percent by the century’s end, if we allow almost entirely free trade. Similarly, in 2018 a team of American and Belgian researchers underscored the role that trade already plays in redistributing nutrients from surplus to deficit regions around the globe: more protectionist trade policies would disrupt these nutrient pathways, with severe consequences for tens of millions of people, it warned.
Food trade can soften the blow of weather shocks, even within national borders. Because national trade is stripped of the tariffs that often restrict international flows, it can offer a rare glimpse into how free movement of food directly buffers people against climate shocks, explains Sandy Dall’Erba, the agricultural economist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “There are a lot of complications in the modeling that simply disappear. So you can really assess with much more precision how weather events and climate change can actually affect production and trade.”
Dall’Erba decided to investigate this in the US context, where four different climate zones and increasingly extreme weather events create an interesting proxy for the global effects of climate change on food systems. It’s not uncommon for extreme weather in the US to destroy crops and leave individual states reliant on their neighbors for short-term imports. To predict how this relationship will play out in the future, Dall’Erba began gathering data on US interstate trade flows, which he overlaid with climate-change projections to determine how extreme weather would affect productivity in each state, and in all the states it trades with.
What he found was that the free trade of food between states will mitigate the negative impacts of climate change on farmer incomes and local food security. For example, if soybean yields in Texas and Tennessee are undermined by rising temperatures, those states may need to buy more imports from Illinois, which will remain relatively temperate under climate change.
His numbers (published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics in 2021) are striking. Dall’Erba calculated that by 2050, interstate trade will have a mitigation effect worth US$14.5 billion. It transforms an expected loss of $11.2 billion without trade into a $3.3 billion profit with trade, compared to the average historical value.
Eye-popping numbers like these, however, belie a dilemma—several, in fact. International trade, as one expert put it, is “full of dilemmas.”
If transporting food across borders mitigates the impacts of climate change on food security, what is the impact of all those food miles on climate? This has been a key sticking point for “eat local” advocates. Buying local, the argument goes, is a certain route to reducing carbon footprints. But “that may not always be true,” says Kasturi Das, a professor of economics at India’s Institute of Management Technology who has authored several reports on how to align trade with climate goals.
“[Lifecycle] assessments often end up showing that a locally produced food item may be more emission-intensive than a comparable item that is imported from a particular country” where it may be grown more efficiently, she explains. Examples abound. For instance, research has shown that tomatoes produced locally in greenhouses in Sweden require ten times more energy than importing seasonally grown tomatoes from southern Europe. And Spanish lettuce imported to the UK produces up to eight times fewer emissions than lettuce grown locally, but indoors, in the UK. (Most traded food is transported via ship, not by air, as is commonly assumed.)
Spanish lettuce imported to the UK produces up to eight times fewer emissions than lettuce grown locally.
In fact, the evidence increasingly suggests that what we eat and how it’s produced determine the much larger climate footprint. Weighed up against factors such as land-use change and fertilizer application in food production, transport emissions simply don’t come close—a fact that grows even more marked for high-emissions products such as beef. In 2018, an ambitious survey of European diets revealed that the production and consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy accounted for 83 percent of EU dietary emissions, while international transport accounted for just 6 percent.
That said, there are other, more difficult, trade dilemmas to untangle. For example, how should nations and regions balance food exports with domestic supplies? Janssen’s research showed that more liberal trading dynamics could encourage a sudden surge of exports, at the expense of a country’s own domestic food provision—potentially counteracting trade’s hunger-reducing role.
Likewise, a globalized food system supercharged by free trade may prioritize cheaper, large-scale food production and displace small-scale farms. This could perpetuate monoculture, pollution, soil depletion, and deforestation. Much of this environmental damage increases emissions and worsens the climate change to which, ironically, free trade is supposed to help countries adapt.
In the face of such risks, protectionism is tempting. But the weight of evidence suggests that would only exacerbate food inequality without making a significant dent in food-related carbon emissions.
The alternative is free trade with well-placed guardrails. Policy mechanisms—for example, taxing imported goods based on the amount of carbon emitted in making them or issuing sustainability certifications for products such as coffee, palm oil, and cacao—would go a long way toward making agriculture more climate-benign. As would ending massive subsidies for crops such as soybeans farmed to feed emissions-belching livestock.
It will be a long road ahead, riddled with caveats. But we might begin by shifting our mindset. In a warmer, uncertain, and ever more-connected world, perhaps a new climate slogan should be: “Travel locally, eat globally.”
Emma Bryce is a journalist based in London. Her work has appeared previously in Anthropocene as well as in The Guardian, Wired Magazine UK, Audubon Magazine, The New York Times, Ensia, and Yale e360.
What to Read Next
New research champions algae farms as the future breadbasket of the Global South
The authors calculate that strategically located algae farms could increase global food production by 56% using just one-tenth of cropland.
Weaving food in antimicrobial threads could replace plastic wrap and cut waste
The new coating can be washed off with water and degrades in just 3 days—compared to the centuries it takes plastic packaging to break down
Study points to an unconventional strategy to save rainforests. Grow more soybeans on less land
Nature and agricultural growth don't always have to be pitted against each other, suggests a new study of Brazilian soybean farms