Exploring the Limits of Fair Trade: Towards a Critical Political Economy of the Local Food Movement. In Michael Bosnia, et al., eds. Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming 2013).


The fair trade movement has been rightly celebrated as a necessary corrective to the problems associated with conventional global food production. In this paper, I argue that while it represents an improvement over conventional trade, the transformative potential of fair trade is nevertheless limited in two important respects. First, in terms of its spatial scale of production, the global fair trade movement is necessarily limited in its capacity to link producers, frequently located in the global south, with consumers, often located in the global north. Claims that fair trade can overcome the related problems of alienation and the commodity fiction are therefore suspect. Second, in more theoretical terms, the fair trade movement remains embedded in the very networks of capitalist production it seeks to undermine, raising questions about the transformative potential of the fair trade movement.

In this paper, I explore the limitations of the fair trade movement in the context of the global political economy. I argue that local food systems, based on regimes of trust and reciprocity, may be able to transcend the spatial and theoretical limits of the fair trade movement by re-embedding production in the local context. Drawing on the works of David Harvey, Karl Marx, and Karl Polanyi, I argue that the potential for such local production represents a more powerful potential corrective to the discourse of globalization in the context of food production and consumption. While remaining mindful of the limits of the local-global binary and the transformative potential of any local movement in the context of a globalized system of capitalist agricultural production, I argue that the local food movement, grounded in the context of food sovereignty, may nevertheless represent a powerful alternative to the logic of neoliberal globalization.