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"Eating Local" Is Unethical???


Controversial article on True/Slant by Ethan Epstein


"‘Locavorism’ encourages people to weigh the interests of their local farmers, cheesemakers, or ranchers over that of others. That is, solely because Farmer John happen to live near us, we should care more about him than Ma Kettle, who lives farther away. I currently reside in Santa Cruz, California. Thus, some would have me weigh the concerns of a farmer who happens to live somewhere on the Monterey Bay over those of a farmer who happens to live in Iowa.

This attitude hardly differs from tribalism and racism."

  1. Is it about the concerns of the farmer or the energy used to transport the food?

    3 Replies
    1. re: babette feasts

      Succinct--I posted at the same time but it took me three times as long to say the same thing,

      1. re: babette feasts

        Or the carbon footprint of the food from seed/embryo to your table?

        1. re: Sam Fujisaka


          On the other hand, my local farmers' markets all seem to be staffed by cute guys. They are so sweet and nice and have peaches and snap peas and mushrooms and sometimes cheese. Hmmm, maybe there are good reasons to give preferential treatment to my local farmers ; )

      2. What he's completely missing is the point of eating local which is that it should eating local reduces the environmental impact from something trucked in from thousands of miles away. It has nothing to do with one farmer being more worthy than another.

        But, that's also simplistic. You could try to grow coffee in Alaska if you want local produce but the cost would be so much greater than having it shipped in. The ultimate goal is not what Epstein claims, to choose one farmer over another, but to choose the what is best environmentally, nothing to do with tribalism or racism.

        1 Reply
        1. re: chowser

          All other good points aside, I don't see racism as being an issue at all. Local farmers can be of any and all races, as can the "not-local" farmers that are purportedly being discriminated against. It's ludicrous to suggest that it's racist for me to buy something grown by someone of Latino or Asian heritage in Northern California rather than a white/European American in the Midwest, someone of white/European heritage who lives in Chile or New Zealand, or someone in China. Anyone who throws the term "racist" around like that is really just interested in stirring the pot and not in any kind of meaningful discourse.

          As for "tribalism" -- what's wrong with choosing to take actions that I think will benefit my community (and me indirectly) -- however defined -- rather than someone else's? I didn't realize the "ethical" and "altruistic" were synonymous!

        2. It seems like the author is intentionally misunderstanding the point of locavorism for the sake of having something to write. Either that, or he's a dope.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Buckethead

            I didn't read the whole article but I have to say this is a half baked argument. What the idiot doesn't grasp is that by eating locally we are supporting our farmers, as well as the environment JUST AS EVERYONE ELSE WHO EATS LOCALLY DOES..... in other words those that live in Iowa, Alaska, New York et all...it all balances out. Guy has waaay too much time on his hands and waaay too little common sense.

          2. This guy is nuts.

            I think I may have figured out Epstein's schtick. There's a link within his writing to another one of his pieces which has to do with boycotting local businesses ("wrongheaded veneration of 'locally-owned businesses'"). He's of the impression that, while local owners merely "enrich themselves," public companies enable individuals to "buy in" and get "a piece of the action."

            Epstein seems to think that if we eat locally-sourced produce, somehow we're short-changing farmers that're not local to us. He wants those farms/farmers, no matter how large or environmentally-unfriendly, to get "their fair share." It's all about spreading the wealth. Epstein's definitely a socialist, and probably a communist.

            With the "boycott locally-owned businesses," he's hoping to anger small business owners. The topic item is aimed at angering those involved in the locavore movement.

            Using emotionally-charged buzzwords like "tribalism" and "racism" to describe making responsible, locally-beneficial purchases makes little sense, and is just high drama calculated to call attention to his point of view.

            1. My reason for eating local is to get fresh and seasonal food. That's the most important for me, everything else is secondary but I do like the reduced environmental impact and being able to support local farms/businesses. In my area, the Hudson Valley, the farms I support are also smaller farms that specialize in organic or free range farming practices.

              32 Replies
              1. re: hudsonvalleyfoodblog

                Getting fresh, seasonal food are your best reasons for eating locally. Reduced carbon impact is in question. The argument has been made that it actually takes more resources, per calorie, for your local farmer to transport a very limited quantity of food to a destination near you then it would for a huge agri-business to ship tons of food 1/4 of the way around the world. I don't know what side of the argument I come out on but it is a very legitimate point.

                1. re: KTinNYC

                  I've heard that too. That a small truck driving from the hudson valley to NYC, for example, produces more green house gases per pound of produce then a train going cross country. Was that from a NY Times article? I could totally see that.

                  In my case I think it is more environmentally friendly since I buy right from the farm which is about the same distance as the supermarket. The farm produce only travels in my car, which the supermarket produce travels first in a large truck and possibly a train, boat or plane before it reaches the supermarket then it travels in my car to my house, approximately the same distance as the trip from the local farm.

                  1. re: hudsonvalleyfoodblog

                    Careful carbon accounting often - albeit NOT always - produces counter-intuitive surprises.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      If you live if the suburbs you have get food to your house some how, either from a supermarket or sometimes in my case the farm itself. If both the farm and the supermarket are 2 miles from my house then the farm produce likely has less of a carbon footprint because the only trip it took was the 2 mile drive from the farm to my house. The supermarket food takes the same 2 mile trip in my car but obviously still had to make the journey from the farm to my local supermarket. So in my situation I'm pretty confident.

                      1. re: hudsonvalleyfoodblog

                        The "carbon footprint" of foodstuffs includes carbon or other-based energy used to pump irrigation water (or not in a rainfed system), to make and use fertilizer and pesticides (or not where more integrated crop management is employed), to prepare land and to do all the steps of crop management, to harvest, process, ship, distribute, and much more. Obviously, economies of scale apply to carbon accounting. The gasoline used to visit your farm, farmers' market or supermarket represents just a very small part of the C footprint you need to be concerned about.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          one study in england found that lamb imported from new zealand actually had a lesser carbon footprint than that which had been locally grown, once you took into account the cost of growing the feed, etc.

                          1. re: FED

                            Be interesting to see who commissioned the lamb study that came up with that nonsense ;-)

                            I think one would have to question its likely veracity - seeing as British lamb, like New Zealand lamb, is primarily grass fed.

                            1. re: Harters

                              As is a some (but not all) American lamb. The lamb that I buy from a local farmer certainly is!

                              1. re: Harters

                                here you go:
                                once again: i'm not arguing that shipping lamb from nz is better ... i'm just saying that relying on "carbon footprint" to make decisions can lead to some perplexing results.

                                1. re: FED

                                  Perhaps unsurprising conclusions from a New Zealand based research team which, readng between the lines, appears to be supported by that country's agribusiness. If you get my drift.

                                2. re: Harters

                                  I haven't seen the popularly oft cited study, but I doubt it was a "commissioned" study in the sense of a private industry buy out as you imply. The carbon accounting findings are often counter-intuitve. There are many, many inputs in production systems that have C costs; and full accounting can give surprising rather than non-sensical results. We need careful accounting in these cases - more than we need uninfromed opinions.

                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    I agree. Opinions are like, well, you know...everyone has one. But to "pass it on" can cause the truth to become muddied and not enough emphasis given things that really do matter.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      while we are at it we should probably factor in environmental cleanup cost and other resources used (water, forests, soil/erosion, impoverishment of rural communities).

                                      if the cited author's position is: "eating local is unethical"-- is the author's position, then, that: "eating factory farm/international corp, mass-market, purchased at a wal-mart superstore *is* ethical?" an interesting position to take, if so.

                                      there are many associated problems with thinking that it is "more efficient" for the entirety of a crop or agricultural resource to come from huge corporate or conglomerate concerns based only in one area of the world. i'd argue that all cotton should *not* come from india, all lamb from nz, all wheat from china, all cows' milk from california. history shows that these systems can and often do lead to crop failures which can affect everyone worldwide, and monopolies and price fixing, lower quality goods overall, and detrimental industrialization (contamination, unsafe food supply) of these products' processing. also political repercussions, including war.

                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        We agree fully! Carbon accounting does NOT equal a voice for large specialized economies of scale (or for "efficiency").

                                        Perhaps environmental comparative advantage might be more understanable to people like soupkitten and harters: Californians use less energy than people in the rest of the US in part because milder winters and less harsh summers mean lower heating and cooling energy demands.

                                        Brazil's bioenergy production (ethanol) efficiency and its C footprint is far superior to that of the US because Brasil's sugar cane intercepts FAR MORE solar energy than nothern crops; the growing season there is essentially year-round rather than four months; the crop depends on rainfall rather than irrigation; sugar cane is a far superior energy producer compared to maize; nothern maize production requires relatively far more C heavy crop management inputs; the processing of maize to ethanol takes far, far more C than the same processing of sugar cane... and on and on.

                                        Like many foods, it makes more sense to bring Brasilian sugar cane based ethanol to the US than to have the US make its own from maize.

                                3. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                  Yeah I know, let's not get crazy. I'm just talking about my personal situation. I'm not going to measure how much carbon is produced by my farmer in the Hudson Valley to grow apples vs a farmer in Washington State. It's just not realistic.

                                  1. re: hudsonvalleyfoodblog

                                    Of course! Buy your apples wherever you like. But just be aware that the distances from your house to the market and to the apple farm may have very little to do with the C footprint of your apples.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      No I get your point. I just prefer the smaller local farm.

                                    2. re: hudsonvalleyfoodblog

                                      This is the problem. We can try to be as informed as possible but, other than being a food scientist as Sam is, we can't know everything. A few years ago, I read that it's better for me, on the east coast, to buy European wine than Californian which is counterintuitive (I've read that it extends all the way to Chicago). But, if I want to buy tomatoes and my choices are from Florida or from a much closer green house in Pennsylvania--who knows what the better choice is? Buying seasonal and local makes sense in certain areas but in cold regions, not always possible. Small farm far away or closer large agribusiness? We can try but it's not realistic to know which option has the smallest carbon footprint.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        i think what these discussions reveal is just how complicated the questions regarding our food supply are. and how silly it is to believe that they can be "fixed" by one small tweak.
                                        and am i the only one who finds discussions of "carbon footprint" somehow so, 2006?

                                        1. re: FED

                                          The concept "carbon footprint" came up before 2006. For Americans with short attention spans, it is probably "soooo 2006". Unfortunately, the concept remains important in the sense that the problems of carbon emissions and global climate change have yet to be solved.

                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                            I took the comment as a swipe against Al Gore and the movie An Inconvient Truth.

                                            1. re: KTinNYC

                                              You're probably right! Thanks.

                                            2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                              obviously those are important problems. i was referring specifically to the question of carbon footprint and food supply. my thinking being that the reasoning by necessity is so convoluted that in the end it winds up being inapplicable to the consumer.

                                              1. re: FED

                                                Not being argumentative but are you saying that individual consumers should just ignore the issue? I DO believe that individuals make a difference - always.

                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                  I believe that FED is suggesting that the carbon footprint of any particular option is only one aspect of the decision. For that matter, what's the carbon footprint of local farmers going out of business and selling their land to developers? Land values in California are insanely high, and only the fact that people are willing to pay a premium for high-quality local goods keeps them from having to sell out to someone who will turn their farms into housing tracts.

                                                  1. re: c oliver

                                                    actually, what i'm saying is that until there is a clear and reliable understanding of what a product's carbon footprint is, that relying on your "intuition" of what that footprint is will often lead you in the wrong direction. besides, even with the clearest of understandings, "carbon footprint" should only be one factor that is considered ... not a litmus test.

                                                    1. re: FED

                                                      Right. An assessment of a product's carbon footprint is always going to be based on some arbitrary parameters that may or may not be accurate when compared to some other product's carbon footprint that may or may not be based on the same factors using the same parameters.

                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                        Well, its like an audit by the IRS - both sides actually want agreed upon and accepted methods, fair application, and lack of personal, subjective, arbitrary techniques. Science agrees on the methods for carbon accounting without much problem. That some outcomes are counterintuitive to the general public should not be a barrier to public understanding of a serious global problem.

                                                        Ruth, this was not pointed at you but at the general thread of the conversation.

                                                      2. re: FED

                                                        But some of the time my "intuition" will lead me in the RIGHT direction. I'll take partial successes.

                                                        1. re: FED

                                                          There is also a "community footprint" which may or may not be important to some (it is somewhat important to me). When I do buy my apples from a local orchard, I'm pretty certain that more money remains in my community than if I buy Washington apples at the supermarket. Granted, this other footprint (for lack of a better word) hasn't been quantified (at least in my community) but it is one of those other factors that you allude to.

                                    3. re: KTinNYC

                                      You say, "The argument has been made that it actually takes more resources, per calorie, for your local farmer to transport a very limited quantity of food to a destination near you then it would for a huge agri-business to ship tons of food 1/4 of the way around the world."

                                      NO, the argument has not been made for all cases everywhere. What has been shown by carbon accounting is that in some cases the counter-intuitive may hold true: low carbon use production quite far away combined with shipping and distribution can be lower C emitting than local production.

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        Can you suggest any where I can do more reading on this subject, on or off line?


                                  2. I think there's another issue, which is that eating locally is a way of encouraging crop diversity via a local food economy. Around the world, there are lots of economies that depend on a single crop, so that when the demand and/or price for that crop crashes, the economy is devastated, or when a pest hits, an entire area is destroyed economically. If you have a local food system with some food produced for local consumption, with exotic cash crops as an extra, then you have a system that is more diverse and more resilient.

                                    I'm sure Sam can talk about this much more intelligently than I can.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: jlafler

                                      Moncultural cash crop production in the developing world can and does leave small producers vulnerable to boom and bust price/demand cycles. Periods of favorable prices often lead to farmers' abandonment of food crops. Fortunately, small farmers in developing countries can often relatively quickly respond to commodity price drops by increasing food crop production. What really puts those farmers at risk, however, are subsidies and price suppports given to northern, developed country farmers: developing country farmers would face far fewer price related risks if the playing field were level.

                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        See, I knew Sam would have something more intelligent to say!

                                        The thing about subsidies and price supports is that there's not a whole lot we can do about them on an individual level -- other than lobbying our lawmakers. But eating locally is a way of calling attention to the problems and inequities in the food system, so I think it has value as consciousness-raising (as well as personal benefits and the whole carbon footprint issue, as muddled as that turns out to be).

                                    2. In their book, "The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter," Peter Singer and Jim Mason explore this question in quite a bit of detail, weighing these issues against others such as environmental impacts, worker conditions, fair trade, and humane treatment of animals.

                                      In the end the authors conclude that the most ethical diet, weighing all of the perspectives, is veganism. But, thankfully for those who aren't ready to be vegans (Peter Singer isn't vegan), the authors also say they don't believe you have to be dogmatic about it.

                                      On the topic of eating locally, the authors conclude that the most ethical approach, overall, is eating locally AND IN SEASON. But, the authors conclude that the #1 thing you can do from an ethical perspective considering all factors, is to stop buying factory-farmed animal products.

                                      Here's a Q&A with the authors. They touch on the issue of "eating locally" (and why counting food miles isn't fool-proof) in the second question.



                                      1. From a taste perspective, local wins for me (wine excepted). It's against my personal ethics to eat crappy food, ie tomatoes that bounce and taste like mealy apples. I also do not see how it could possibly be unethical to talk to one's food producers instead of simply picking up a package shipped from conglomerate A or B.

                                        I'm not originally from NJ, so I don't know if it can be considered racist. Moreover, most farmers hire seasonal migrant workers (even smallish farms; this is not limited to the US). Mr. Epstein is an idiot if he thinks that Farmer John only has his extended family of the same race as Farmer John running and working his farm in lieu of normal agricultural hiring practices. The fact that he's in Santa Cruz and that clueless? Has he been on a highway or the edge of town where the day laborers wait for jobs all over California? To be that ignorant he must live in a bubble.

                                        My tribe? My side lives in California, his side between Vermont and South Carolina. I was born in Chicago and have an ethnic background which covers a good portion of Europe and parts of Asia. So my "tribe" is both global and national.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. simplistic solutions to complex problems are always unethical.

                                          15 Replies
                                          1. re: FED

                                            And sweeping generalizations are always wrong. ;-)

                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                              And the food at my local farmers markets tastes better than the food at the grocery store.

                                              1. re: Shane Greenwood

                                                The main difference between food at the farmers market and food at the grocery store is that you can usually taste the food at the farmers market before you buy it and not be sucked in to buying beautiful fruit that tastes like styrofoam infused with sugar water.

                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                  You can also speak directly to the farmer, in many cases, and ask questions about their methods and techniques, plus get advice on what is best.

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    this is EXACTLY the point. people who treat farmers markets like supermarkets -- assuming that all they have to do is find the best price on peaches -- are completely missng the point. all farmers aren't created equal and it's the opportunity to compare before you buy that makes all the difference.

                                                    1. re: FED

                                                      Plus, I've learned a lot. For example, it wasn't until a few years ago that I realized strawberries are not all alike. There are dozens of varieties of strawberries, and they all taste slightly different. The reason strawberry X tastes better than strawberry Y may not have anything to do with seasonality of method of cultivation, but simply the variety. And yet when you buy strawberries at the supermarket -- where the different types of apples or pears, etc. are all clearly labled -- they never say what variety they are, and even at the farmers' market they don't usually identify them by variety. Sometimes a farmer will have several varieties of strawberries out and there's no clue that they aren't all the same. Which can lead to disappointment if the sample strawberry you tried is not the same as the basket that you buy.

                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                        I just read Epstein's entire (rather short) article. He probably doesn't believe in global warming either. We eat locally, inseason when we can...the food is fresher and tastier and grown organically. I drive to the Dairy farm and see happy, grass-fed cows out in the fields, not wallowing in their own filth in a closed in barn. I'd rather support my local farms and economy than Monsanto and Cargill. Does Epstein believe that when he buys food that is shipped from Chili, he is helping poor Chilian farmers? The real money is going to the middleman. Plus, the more I find out about what is in most food sold in the supermarket, the more repulsed I get. Is it unethical to want to feed your children real food and not chemicals enhanced by corn sryup and artificial flavors? There was just an article in the NYT about a company that takes scrap fat from CAFOs, washes it in ammonia and sells it as "hamburger" filler. 70% of all hamburger in the US has 10 to 15% of this crap in it. One official described it as Pink Slime, yet they still approved it. Unsurprisingly, they have come to realize that the ammonia doesn't kill E.Coli and Salmonella and the process isn't safe. Plus, they do not have to disclose that there is ammonia in the hamburger. No thanks. I'd rather go to a local farm, and buy hamburger meat that comes from one ranch, not 10 different factories from 5 different countries.

                                                        1. re: twotodine

                                                          Agricultural trade with Chile has in fact benefitted small and medium sized farmers - and has been a factor in the expansion of the Chilean middle class over the past few decades. Well documented is that a group of agricultural economists from Chile who did their PhDs at Chicago (??) got together in the Chilean governmenet to draft and implement forward looking, successful policies.

                                                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                            Yes, when I was in Chile I was impressed by how strong their economy is -- it feels quite prosperous. Still, since I live in California I prefer to support my local farmers and farmworkers.

                                                            To expand on what jlafler was saying about encouraging crop diversity, one thing that small local farmers can do that remote and/or agribusinesses can't is experiment with specialty crops and respond to micro-demand. There are many produce varieties that are widely available now because small growers with a clientele that was interested in specialty produce created a feedback cycle: they produced it because they knew they had a market; once they produced it and people tried it, the demand grew, etc. If you can now buy Meyer lemons in Costco in New York it's because thirty years ago people like Alice Waters were gleaning them off their neighbors' trees, putting them on menus, and creating a demand that small farmers then stepped in to supply.

                                                            But basically, I think it's healthier both economically and psychologically for a region to have a diverse economy that includes food production.

                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                              "Yes, when I was in Chile I was impressed by how strong their economy is -- it feels quite prosperous."

                                                              The per capita income is about 1/3 of what it is in America and Chile is 56th in the world.

                                                              1. re: BeenThereAteThat

                                                                I'd be curious to see what the median income is, but 56th out of 190+ is pretty good. Chile has the highest per capita income in South America and the smallest percentage of the population below the property line -- to me, how prosperous a country feels is based more on how few poor people there are than how many rich people there are. It also has a low rate of inflation and a miniscule amount of "public" debt.

                                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                  Oops. Make that smallest percentage below the poverty line.

                                                                2. re: BeenThereAteThat

                                                                  And the US has a per capita GDP that's about 1/3 of Liechtenstein's. Your point?

                                                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                                                    alanbarnes, I'm sure you know that there are twice as many corporations based in Liechentenstein than there are people, and that's because the country has extremely low corporate taxes, making them a highly prosperous country. I guess that was your point.

                                                                    As far as Chile goes, things are improving. Pre-1990, many companies and industries were state owned. Once they privatized, the economy showed huge improvements (particularly compared to the rest of South America), though it still lags far behind the US.

                                                                    1. re: BeenThereAteThat

                                                                      I think the point is that simply comparing per capita income doesn't give you a feel for the quality of life in a certain country. In the United States, you need a much higher income to give you the same quality of life than you'd get in other countries for much less.

                                              2. Tribalism and racism? Give me a break! I prefer local foods to those grown in China or Peru, and I make no apologies.

                                                1. This thread is running far, far afield of food at this point, so we're going to lock it.