RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Don’t Depend on Asia to Put Food on the Table

I’ve been buying local and writing about it for about 20 years now and I guess I still don’t understand it. Because if I understood, I’d know why buying local is so threatening to the political bigwigs. Exports! Exports! Exports! That’s all you hear from our politicians. You’d think they believe America should feed the world.

I understand the food system pretty well, and I love the fact that my bread, meat, veggies come from people I know. But I’ve heard that American businesses also make bridge trusses, highway signs, military uniforms, computers, phones, coat hangers and dozens of other things. Our governments — local, state AND federal — should give preference to those American-made things.

The latest invasion on the Buy-Local economy is the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP. If it passes, it will be the largest trade agreement ever, representing 40% of world trade. There are 29 “chapters” in the “agreement” but we know little about it because government “talks” with the “signatories” have been conducted mostly in secret. It’s hard to figure out just how it will affect our lives, but here’s how Public Citizen has scoped out the TPP regulation on buy-local: “The TPP’s procurement chapter would require that all firms operating in any signatory country be provided equal access as domestic firms to US government procurement contracts over a certain dollar threshold. To implement this ‘national treatment’ requirement, the United States would agree to waive Buy American procurement policies for all firms operating in the TPP countries.”

Read that last sentence again, then think about the amounts of money our government spends. Roads, bridges, office equipment, food for prisons and colleges and hospitals. What if a good percentage of that was spent on the companies at home?

But, instead of spending it locally, TPP puts us in the old familiar race to the bottom. If the cheaper goods came from one of the signatories, we’d have to buy it for our tax-funded projects. This regulation would come at a time when the green economy is just taking off and people are beginning to evaluate the carbon footprint of, say, tomatoes from Mexico as opposed to tomatoes from their own home state.

And then there’s the thing about re-building economies and helping nourish meaningful American jobs. When there are local markets, money is spent locally. Farmers’ market farmers will stop at the feed store to spend it. The feed store owner puts his profits in, say, the dry cleaners. The cleaners spend their money at the movie theatre and the theatre manager goes to the farmers’ market. Some estimates are that money changes hands four or five times in a local economy; in an international economy, the money just goes into corporate pockets!

And, where does corporate-backed philanthropy end up? Probably not in your community coffers. One study showed that local businesses (like Joe’s Drug Store) donate 250% the amount that is donated by national corporations (like Walgreen’s, CVS, Walmart, and so forth). Check out the logos on the little league t-shirts ... chances are good those kids are sponsored by the local yokels rather than the corporate behemoths.

And that brings us to what buying local DOESN’T do ...

1. Buying local doesn’t put wealth into the stock market, transfer money from you to corporate CEOs or pump up industry’s profits; 2. Buying local doesn’t promote slick corporate advertising images; 3. Buying local doesn’t make your town look like every other town ... instead, it gives your town character based on the traditions and ecosystem where you live; 4. Buying local will help break the bonds of dependency and make all our communities more independent; 5. Buying local puts us in control of our resources, including farmland, and moves the whole world toward better food sovereignty and security.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from a friend who works with the government on energy efficiency. He had just learned that the food system in mid-Missouri has only a 3-day supply at any time. He was in a panic. “Three and a half million people with a 3-day supply of food!” he said on the answering machine, then he went on and on until the machine ran out of tape.

I have to admit, his panic struck me funny. Who didn’t know that we don’t raise enough of our own food to give everyone even a bite of something local and yummy? When I got back to him, he went through the whole diatribe again and then launched into a discussion of how we need more farmers growing food, where are they going to come from? He asked if we can re-train all the kids coming out of the military, or moms on welfare, or retired folks, to be farmers?

I was very polite and I listened until he was finished and not once did I interrupt to say something about how we’re going to feed the world.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2015

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