This might sound contradictory, but one of the effects of globalization could very well be a new impulse for the development of a local economy, with energy as the main driver.
Let’s review a few things! One driver of globalization has been the search for low wages, therefore making corporations relocating their manufacturing units to the emerging countries. Another pillar of globalization has been the ability to transport goods across the world at a low cost, as energy has been in fact quite cheap. A clear effect of the success created by the above is an economic boom in the emerging countries, where employment has risen and where the standard of living has increased, on average. Currently, we are going through this difficult economic situation, but in the future, we very likely will face an increase in the price of oil. This is the energy effect that I just mentioned. Higher energy costs and food prices will drive inflation higher, although not to alarming levels. Nonetheless, this will be pushing wages up in the emerging countries, while unemployment will stay high for a while in the West, where the main consumer markets are. Therefore, we can expect to see the wage differential between those two groups of countries shrink, while transporting goods will become more expensive. In such a situation, it is not unreasonable to think that some manufacturing will come back closer to the Western consumers market. In addition, in the same time, emerging countries should have been able to develop a middle class that will drive domestic consumption, and thus sustain a certain level of economic momentum, even if their exports decrease in relative volume. An interesting consequence of the above would then be global trend towards a more local economy. The currently emerging countries would produce to satisfy their domestic markets and exporting lower surpluses, while the Western countries would repatriate some of the production units back home since it might be cheaper to produce and to transport goods that way to satisfy their own consumers.
Agriculture has followed the same pattern as other industries, and regions have specialized for the foods that they could produce at the cheapest cost. Of course, the cost of production and of distribution to consumers depends largely on the price of inputs, such as energy, fertilizers, animal feed, etc, but from a pure financial, and also climatic, point of view, it could not make sense to try to produce everything everywhere. Thanks to cheap fuel, the model was to go to global trade and transport foods over long distances. This is quite a change compared with the local agricultural model that dominated until the nineteenth century.
This search for the lowest cost of production will not go away, for a very simple reason. The overwhelming majority of the world population has a limited budget and keeping food affordable is an absolute necessity. We have seen during the sharp food price increase of 2008 that it would not take much to create a panic and riots, because even a slight price increase is almost unbearable for most people, especially in developing countries. This is quite a contrast with the wealthy Westerners who claim that cheap food is a bad thing, and that agriculture should be local and small-scale.
Another aspect that is not addressed very often is the actual carbon footprint of food transport. In the partisan debate, most of the arguments focus on the number of miles travelled, but they rarely look at the qualitative aspect of the transport. Depending on whether we transport food by road, by rail or on water, the results vary greatly. For instance, in Brazil, only 5% of exported products were transported by waterway in Brazil, compared to 61% in the U.S. Conversely, 67% of Brazil’s exported products are transported on highways, compared to just 16% in the U.S. In the European Union, almost 90% of the external freight trade is moved by water, and short sea shipping represents 40% of trade within the European Union in terms of ton-kilometers. As you can imagine, the consequences for the environment, as well as in terms of transportation costs differ greatly.
There are also significant differences between transporting fresh foods or frozen foods. A study carried out by Astrid Scholz, Ulf Sonesson and Peter Tyedmers on salmon showed that consuming frozen salmon transported by sea was the better environmental choice for salmon. To illustrate this, their conclusion was “If seafood-loving Japanese consumers, who get most of their fish via air shipments, were to switch to 75 percent frozen salmon, it would have a greater ecological benefit than all of Europe and North America eating only locally farmed or caught salmon.”
Another important parameter in the environmental impact of the distribution of food is the filling rate of the transportation unit. An efficient fleet of trucks that organize back transport for other goods is more efficient than a small truck used by a farmer to bring his products to the city’s farmers’ market 400 kilometers away and who drives back empty.
As you can see, in the choice between global or local, we need to think in pragmatic terms because the reality is more complex than it may seem at first.
Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.