Our Small World

Global Trade: Promises and Pitfalls

More goods and services are moving to more places than ever before. That’s not all. They’re moving faster and farther too. All that movement is changing the world in big ways.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben has a bit of advice for our globalized world: Think local. Specifically, he encourages people to buy their food from small, local farms. As a recent U.S. government study confirmed, small farms produce more food per acre than larger ones. They also use water and oil more efficiently. And the food is fresh. He encourages local interdependence and a sustainable use of natural resources.

The concept of “it’s always summer someplace” or transporting peaches from the other side of the country or the world is being challenged by “locavores.” This is a new name for an old idea from when food didn’t travel thousands of miles from farm to dinner table. Locavores try to eat only food grown or harvested within a short radius of their home, usually within 100 miles.

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This is one way to show the seasonal availability of local food. Source: Gosselin, Klein, Prentice, The Local Foods Wheel, San Francisco Bay

There’s an added bonus to McKibben’s idea. Farmers markets, it turns out, are incredibly fun.

Have you ever done a trade at lunchtime? Maybe you swapped an apple for an orange, or chips for pretzels. By trading, both parties wind up with something they like better than what they had originally.

Global trade, of course, is a lot more complicated. For starters, people usually sell goods or services for money rather than swapping them for other goods and services. Then there are the countless laws and treaties, with such names as NAFTA and GATT, governing international transactions. On top of that, nations often charge tariffs, or taxes, on items coming into the country.

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In the 1950s, containers began to revolutionize cargo shipping. Today, more than 18 million containers like this make more than 200 million trips worldwide per year. About 25% originate in China.
Source: Comstock

Still, the goal of global trade is the same as your lunchtime swap: to make everyone better off. Does that actually happen? Yes and no. The big plus is that people can get an incredible array of affordable goods from around the world. The downside is that global trade can strain the environment and even pose risks to our health.

The following four examples demonstrate the complexities of global trade.


In 1999, scientists discovered a strange new fungus on Vancouver Island off the western coast of Canada. The fungal species was not a welcome addition to the neighborhood. By 2007, it had made nearly 200 people sick. Eight of them had died. The fungus also infected domestic and wild animals.

Where did this ecological intruder come from? Well, it exists in Australia, so some experts believe it came from there. It may have crossed the Pacific

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This shows the type of information that public health officials gather in order to combat new health problems.
Source: Sunny Mak, British Columbia Centers for Disease Control

aboard eucalyptus trees shipped from Australia to Canada. It may also have stowed away on shipping crates. Buying goods from abroad can give you more than you bargained for!

Finding the source of an emerging infectious disease is not easy. Global warming, for example, brings new “ecological niches.” It’s possible that the fungus had always lived quietly on Vancouver until the warmer summers created the right conditions for it to emerge at a new level. Without prior exposure to the new form, humans and animals living on the Island had not developed an immunity to the fungus.




China has become one of the world’s biggest sources of wood and wood products, especially furniture and floorboards. That means jobs and money for the Chinese. There’s just one problem: China doesn’t want to cut down its own trees. That’s because China knows firsthand about the problem of deforestation. Back in 1998, floods washed over treeless landscapes, and killed 3,600 people. Chinese logging bans and replanting efforts are the prime reason that Asia’s forest cover has actually grown in recent years while deforestation continues elsewhere.


Of course, new forests and old ones do not share the same biodiversity and other characteristics.
Source: Forest and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


So how do you make wood products without felling trees? In the global economy, the answer is easy: Buy the wood from someplace else. China imports timber from Africa as well as Burma, Indonesia, and other countries in Asia.

Source: Forest Stewardship Council

Eager for money, these countries are destroying their irreplaceable forests at a rapid pace. There have even been reports that Chinese companies have bribed officials in other countries to allow illegal logging.

Without labels telling us where the materials used to make products come from, how can we make wise choices? Fortunately, there’s something consumers can do about this. That is to look for products with the Forest Stewardship Council logo. It certifies that the lumber or wood product was produced in an environmentally sound way.


If California were a country, its economy would be the tenth largest in the world. As a result, many companies set their sights on selling products to Californians. That gives the Golden State a fair amount of economic power and shows how in a time of globalization, one state or country setting pro-environmental standards can have a big influence elsewhere.

California is the only state allowed to set air pollution standards higher than those imposed by the U.S. government. Residents want to prove that it is possible to have a strong economy while also acting environmentally wise. California state law requires a 25-34% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. To meet these standards, refineries that want to sell their products in California must produce new blends of gasoline with higher percentages of bio-ethanol (a renewable fuel made from crops such as corn or switchgrass).

To see how California compares to the rest of the U.S. and to learn more, click here. Source: Energy Information Administration

Although most ethanol produced in the U.S. is made from corn, switchgrass is preferable and far more efficient. Only a very small amount of fossil material is needed to make a gallon of switchgrass ethanol. On the other hand, every gallon of corn-based ethanol fuel requires about .7 gallons of fossil energy. Switchgrass is fast growing and grows well on land that can’t be used for other crops. According to scientists, corn-based ethanol can reduce global warming pollution from 10-30%, and switchgrass ethanol, by as much as 90%.

Some refineries have started making their gas as green as possible because they want to sell gas in California. This is good news for the farmers, the environment, and U.S. energy independence. But, it’s taking a toll on drivers’ pocketbooks. In part because of California’s standards, gas prices there are usually higher than in other states. (Other states are following California’s lead for high standards.)


Bananas from Costa Rica, olive oil from Italy, chocolate from Switzerland, coffee from Kenya—global trade can serve up an international feast. Problem is, there may be ingredients that weren’t on the menu.

In 1997, for example, nearly 800 Americans and Canadians contracted cyclosporiasis, an intestinal infection. They got it by eating raspberries from Central America. Water used to irrigate the berries, it turned out, had contained a parasite.


In 2007, China banned two brands of American peanut butter after the World Health Organization announced that they might contain salmonella, bacteria that can cause abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and serious infections.

That same year, U.S. firms recalled a hundred brands of pet food with ingredients from China. The food was causing kidney problems in cats and dogs. Nearly 500 pets were affected, and 100 of them died. The problem turned out to be wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, a chemical used to make plastic that also makes the pet food appear to have high protein content. News coverage of this issue revealed that a very small percentage of the food imported from China undergoes safety inspection, even when it’s intended for human consumption.



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