What would a world without exports be like?
The search for ways to produce sustainably is a common goal for all parts of the food industry. Expanding food supply and reducing emissions in one fell swoop sounds like music and is frequently heard among the recurring speeches that focus on the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. After all, this is the goal for all of us: a world without hunger and more sustainable.
In this sense, proposals appear with this purpose. Many, coherent and aligned with the objective. Others dress up as friendly solutions that, in fact, hide the interests of third parties.
This is the case, for example, of advice such as: always prefer food from local producers.
The adverb of time “always” takes us to an unshakable, immutable and unquestionable idea. It means that, regardless of the elements, facts and context, it will “always” be better to consume from those who produce close to your home.
This is a widespread idea in European markets, with campaigns promoted by local producers – who, in return, tend to “attack” the image of foreign entrants. In this argumentative “logic”, consuming products from distant regions would be less sustainable.
Does this logic apply to all products? The data tells us no.
I emphasize here, firstly, that it is important to respect the decision of those who choose to shop locally due to social factors and minimum food security. However, it is not possible to agree that this is a definitive sustainability factor.
Let’s look at the case of chicken meat. Consider two production units, one installed in Brazil, the other in the United Kingdom. Both use corn and soybean meal as inputs and have a structure with warehouses with a temperature maintenance system. Even with different suppliers, both use cutting-edge genetics, which meet the needs of the production system in which they are integrated.
The similarities end there. The differences arise when we check the context in which the production is inserted. Consider, for example, the energy matrix: in most of Europe, farms are basically supplied by gas systems – recently impacted by severe increases as a result of the conflict in Eastern Europe. In the case of Brazil, there is an ongoing transition, with the widespread adoption of photovoltaic systems – there are companies that have already adopted the model on more than 60% of farms. Obviously, Brazil’s mild climate also contributes to lower energy demand.
Another point is the supply of inputs. For those who don’t know, the composition of a bird’s feed is basically corn (65%) and soybean meal (25%), in addition to other inputs. In both cases we have ample supply in our territory, which makes us self-sufficient. In a situation different from ours, European units need to import these inputs.
There are several other disparities, but they boil down to one calculation: according to the United Kingdom Department of Agriculture (DEFRA), the farm located in Brazil emits 45% less than the British production unit. Sold on the same shelf in the United Kingdom, chicken meat from Brazil will still have emitted less CO² than the protein produced in the European country, even after processing, clearance, shipment and transport to the shelf.
In other words: the local product definitely did not prove to be more sustainable. The advice that, in fact, promotes “protectionism”, has no support on the issue of emissions.
In a demanding market, who benefits from a possible blockade of imports? The answer is as simple as it is enigmatic: no one.
The first to lose is the consumer, with price increases and less supply on the shelves. But even local producers can be harmed by this.
Let’s return to the case of the United Kingdom. According to information from the International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), an organization that represents British importing and exporting companies, if local poultry production were increased to satisfy British demand for chicken breast (the main product imported by the market), it would generate 2 million of additional tons of products not related to breasts, which would need to find an end – this is what we call market “imbalance”. It would be necessary to increase local production by 122%, including all added costs, price losses and the like. You don’t need to be creative to imagine the size of the damage that would be unleashed.
The global free market exists to balance and meet the needs of communities around the planet. A country that has more advantageous characteristics can produce more, emit less and fill spaces that are not occupied by local producers. More competitiveness, more food security and less protectionism, this is the true essence of sustainability.
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