Monday, March 17, 2008

Diet Globalization

When I was as an undergraduate I kept having the experience of thinking I had discovered a brilliant new idea, only to find out someone had thought of it already. The notion that what irritates us about somebody else is a trait we don't like in ourselves...Thanks to the psychologist Jung for that. A conception of the universe as balanced between forces of creation and destruction, good and evil...chalk that up to ancient Chinese philosophers of the Tao. My consolation was that I was stumbling upon the work of deep, wise thinkers and philosophers, so I must be on to something.

As I've gotten older I am a little more confident on the validity of my own experience and insights. But I still do like to be verified, which is why I want to call your attention to last week's NY Times article , "A Global Need for Grain that Farmers Can't Fill." It is a good summary of the problems of rising food prices for those struggling in poverty, and offers up a term for a phenomenon that has shaped my advocacy for Fair Trade: "diet globalization."

When I was traveling in Mexico and Central Amercia in 1999-2000, I was very unsettled to find so many people aspiring to have a U.S. lifestyle. Certainly struggling to have basic needs for food and clean water, not to mention clean clothes and decent housing, needs no explanation, of course, but I was a bit horrified to see how U.S. culture and material values of over-consumption were infiltrating small communities and big cities. When I talked to friends or home-stay hosts, it was clear that achieving "The American Dream" was a driving force. As someone traveling, in part, to clear my head of the conspicuous consumption of U.S. life, this was very distressing. I wondered how the Earth could sustain such consumption and how the human heart might be diminished by a focus on achieving more, more, more material possessions.

I encountered Fair Trade among coffee farmers in Chiapas and realized soon that not only was it a way to have those communities organize for economic justice, but Fair Trade was also a way for consumers in the Global North (what I now call the "minority world" thanks to Albert Tucker) to think about and shift their spending habits. I came back to the United States with the desire to help U.S. consumers understand how Fair Trade could help improve their lives and the lives of others, not to mention protect the planet.

It turns out that this notion that the Majority World--those across the globe who want to work their way out of poverty to have a lifestyle similar to the average North American--is called "diet globalization." In the Times article the quote that stuck out for me was:

'“Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,”
said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a Chicago consultancy.
“But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.”'

At this moment, world demand for crops central to the typical U.S. diet, as well as biofuels, is driving food prices up for economically poor people and also for the existing middle classes. An irony, of course, is that increasing rates of obesity in the United States is a growing health concern, even as billions worldwide are malnourished. Health issues aside, as average households experience budget crunches, I hope we can take this moment to help people consider if their lifestyles are sustainable for themselves and billions of others on our planet. Do we really want our diet globalized for the rest of the world???

Maybe as prices go up, those of us with middle class lifestyles can consider going on a philosophical diet to change our own and others' expectations of what the proverbial good life is. In addition to using Fair Trade as a tool for taking those steps (which is the topic of Chapter 10 in "A Beginner's Guide) we can check out the simplicity movement and organizations such as "Center for a New American Dream" to help us reconsider our lifestyles and those of others.


  1. I came back from El Salvador right before the FTF conference. I was there for a month, living with my family.

    One thing that struck me was the rising price of corn, wheat, and beans and rice. It was unbelievable. People were protesting on the streets and asking the government to do something.

    There is a huge demand for corn right now to produce ethanol for fueling cars. This has driven the demand up, and the price too. At the same time, people don't want to plant other crops, reducing the supply of wheat, rice, beans, etc. and also driving prices up. Only a fraction of the world will benefit from lower fuel prices (by combining ethanol with petrol) but the vast majority of people who don't even have cars are now being gravely affected by high food prices.

    This is unbelievable... at the same time, China's and India's expansion and their Westernized idea of "development" (aka over consumption and pollution) was also making building materials (such as steel and cement) scarce and very expensive in El Salvador.

    Do you think that unsustainable lifestyles are more apparent now in the world?

    Also, you're right, a lot of people want to be "like Americans", but... I also discovered that in a country with scarce resources, even the rich and middle class don't waste energy and don't consume too many material goods. It's a different lifestyle, plus for us in Central America everything is imported so everything is more expensive :-(

  2. Anonymous12:30 PM

    this is a lie is a stupid blogger i dont fall 4 it sorry

  3. Anonymous12:30 PM

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