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Dec. 29 2009 - 1:59 pm | 459 views | 0 recommendations | 19 comments

‘Eating Local’ Is Unethical

NEW YORK - JULY 11: Daphina Jacobs bags up fre...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The term ‘locavore’ is obnoxious both sonically and philosophically. That hasn’t stopped the self-styled ‘locavores’ from proliferating, however: scores of “locally sourced” restaurants and grocery stores have sprung up throughout the American landscape over the past decade. My former home of Portland, Oregon now boasts dozens of restaurants that loudly flaunt the “locally grown” products that they serve.

Like the wrongheaded veneration of “locally-owned businesses” however, the “eat local” movement is profoundly misguided. For “locavorism” is a thinly veiled cousin of tribalism and racism — two destructive phenomena that humans have struggled for thousands of years to repudiate.

The foundation of any ethical system – actually, the foundation of ethics, period – is is the premise that the interests of all people are worthy of equal consideration. This holds true whether we are related to said people, whether they are of the same race as us, whether they live in the same area, or, indeed, whether we have any consciousness of their existence at all. (Incidentally, this is also the philosophical basis for climate alarmism. After all, anti-global warming activists are taking steps that they hope will benefit the lives of people who have not even been born yet.) By formulating the first codes of ethics, classical philosophers repudiated tribalism, and its close relative, racism: that is, the noxious belief that some people, solely by virtue of their relation to us, are more deserving of consideration than others.

Yet it is precisely this form of tribalism that the “Eat Local” movement is based upon. ‘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.

We’ve known for sometime that many Bobos are deeply suspicious of human progress. But I always assumed these fears were solely related to technological progress. Now we know many oppose ethical progress as well.


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  1. collapse expand

    Why wouldn’t you buy from someone you know over someone you don’t know? And what if you are black and the person you are buying locally from is white? Is it still akin to racism? And what if the local product is better than the one that can be bought from a major chain?

    Would you consider your own family deserving of more consideration that someone you don’t know? Or are you a “Do as I say, not as I do” type of person.

  2. collapse expand

    Good thing you live so far away from me, or it would be unethical next for me to read your work.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Epstein,

    “Eating Local” is not about favoring my local friendly over some more distant unknown farmer. It is about reducing GHG emissions. If I buy carrots from New Zealand, they have to be shipped half way around the world to get to me while if I buy a local carrot, the GHG emissions are but a fraction. There is also the chance the carrots would be fresher, an important detail to some “foodies”.

  4. collapse expand

    This is the most poorly researched piece that I have read in some time. The person with the above comment is absolutely right: eating locally is not about race or ideology, it’s common sense. People who are concerned with emmissions or environmental impact whatsoever will consider the sustainability of their food, which includes the transportation of it . Also, products (like honey) are more nutritional for people when they are cultivated in a persons immediate environment. If i am sick, I make a point of having local honey because the properties of the honey itself are more effective in helping me get well because the bees and the flowers reflect aspects of my environment that my immune system might be dealing with. Seriously, a really easy Google search would have pulled this stuff up. Duh, dude.

  5. collapse expand

    Your post here was picked up on a favorite site of mine for wasting time: newser.com. There was an amazing amount of unanimity regarding your fitness to express any opinion of any kind at any place or time ever in the foreseeable future. It was amazing to me because we have folks there who labor mightily to disagree with everyone, if necessary, to get their particular, well honed, points across. Check it out if you dare:

  6. collapse expand

    It’s almost like you’re trying to do Stephen Colbert, only your tongue has been buried too far into your cheek and no one gets the joke. It’s embarrassing. I feel bad for you.

    You don’t know a damn thing about local food. Here’s why people eat it:

    1. It reduces carbon emissions. Fewer ‘food miles’ means that much less diesel fuel used to get it to my plate. That’s environmentalism, right there.
    2. It lets us have more control over the way our food is grown. In capitalism terms, it gives consumers more choice, or ‘freedom’.
    3. The farmers I support with my purchase are more likely to buy my services, or buy services from other people who might buy my services. Perhaps that’s nakedly self-serving, but I gotta get the money to pay my rent somehow, and Portland’s getting expensive.
    4. Joining a CSA means better vegetables for less money than the grocery store. If I was shopping at Safeway I’d be spending more money.
    5. I know that my meat was raised ethically, had a happy life out in the pasture, free of hormones and antibiotics, and was slaughtered humanely within a day or so of it being delivered to me. Plus I pay $3.99/lb for steak. Total. Fucking. Win.

    Not that it’s important to do so in order to utterly demolish your argument, but let’s address your bizarre ideas of ethics, if only for your education. You claim that it’s tribalism, or even racism to choose local food over the products of globalized agriculture. Yet this is a faulty analogy. It cannot be unethical to choose one product over another in a free market unless there is some harm being done through that action. If it were the case that the local food offers no benefit to the consumer but supporting a local system, your argument might almost be worth arguing, but as we’ve explored above, there are a number of ways in which the local product is a superior value for the consumer, simply by means of its system of production and distribution. Indeed, by virtue of your own stated system of ethics, the greater degree of harm committed to the planet through purchasing non-local food might even be unethical itself. But aside from all that, you appear to have a poor understanding of ethics.

    A system of ethics does not negate the interests of the tribe or the self. In saying that the interests of all beings are to be considered equally, it is inaccurate to say that building yourself a house is unethical in a world where there are people who do not have houses. It is neither ethical or unethical. You simply build yourself a house, because it’s cold and rainy outside. You are a being who needs a house, therefore it cannot be unethical to build yourself a house, even though you could have expended that effort to build another person a house. Because why should that other person have a house when there are so many different people who need houses? How can any one house be a more ethical project than another? If you were to build a house far beyond your needs perhaps it would become unethical (since you could have built ten houses for poor families on the other side of the world with that same investment), but if that house is not a sort of self-aggrandizement, it could be said to be an ethical investment.

    This principle extends to your local food argument. It cannot be unethical to choose one product over another unless there are substantial differences in content between the two. Some farmer must grow the food somewhere. Someone will benefit from a purchase, while other farmers and distributors will lack that benefit. You cannot eat all the food that is grown, nor would you want to. Therefore if I had a choice between a carrot grown here in Portland and a carrot grown in Vermont, and they were raised the same way and tasted the same and cost the same and (for the sake of argument) had used the same amount of fuel to be delivered to my doorstep, it could not be unethical for me to choose the carrot that benefitted myself, indirectly, by benefitting my community. It is neither ethical nor unethical.

    To gain a better understanding of the subject, I recommend you read Ethics For The New Millennium by the Dalai Lama.

    And of course, the point still remains that the local carrot is infinitely more ethical than the big ag carrot from Iowa, grown from non-reproducing GM crops, grown with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides in a process that destroys our oceans, poisons and depletes our aquifers and our topsoil, all before being harvested and shipped with diesel fuel, for the profits to wind up in the pockets of giant companies that wage economic wars on helpless farmers around the world while corrupting governments to do their bidding. Really, there’s NO comparison, ethically.

    So grow the fuck up, already.

  7. collapse expand

    I sorta get this insofar as you live in a hippie town. A guy working the full dreds-chi pant-birkenstock thing at the Santa Cruz farmer’s market harangued me once for carrying a bag from a local supermarket, and by way of a sales pitch for some gravely overpriced artichokes, appealed to my conscience instead of my stomach. I imagine living in a moralizing environment tends to provoke rants.

    On the other hand, Santa Cruz artichokes are awfully good.

  8. collapse expand

    There were blueberries in my local NY suburbs grocery store — the Dutch chain Stop ‘n Shop — yesterday at $5 each, maybe $6. From Argentina.

    Your post also ignores — why? — the enormous profits that chain grocery stores build into their sale process through vertical integration, without profit going directly, as it does in a local farmer’s market, from my hand to his or hers. I do not fantasize that some Argentine farmer is buying a Porsche because those blueberries were so insanely expensive.

  9. collapse expand

    A majority of the people who eat local are doing it for environmental concerns… you should proabably research the topic you are writing about more deeply rather than drawing false conclusions out of spite or anger. Just a thought.

  10. collapse expand

    Not sure you thought through your argument completely. I see no mention of economic and/or environmental issues which are key to understanding this concept of locavorism. Nor do I see any mention of the idea of community which imo is vital to the discussion.

  11. collapse expand

    Here in Pennsylvania, we are buying more and more locally grown farm products. The farmers are friendly, and the food tastes way better than the stuff shipped here from California. The best product is totally organic and is incredibly scrumptous. It comes from the Amish (who are cooler than anybody in California hands down). We are truly blessed to have these gentle and wise people as neighbors. There communities are also great for bicycling if you can tolerate their kids’ jibes about riding bikes to “save on gas”.

  12. collapse expand

    All I can say is this argument reminds me of when I was a child and I knew I was on the losing side of a confrontation. I would think of the most illogical stance to take just to dumbfound my opponent (usually sister) so that I could “win” the viewpoint and the day.

  13. collapse expand

    My man! I suggest you have an editor glance at your posts before put them online! That has to be one of the most preposterous things I have ever read. You totally missed the point of the problems people are trying to (ethically)address by eating locally.

  14. collapse expand

    Snowmaggedon in Washington, DC is a prime example of why eating locally simply isn’t the answer to feeding the world. if we were limited to eating locally during our historic recent snowfalls–with another snow emergency predicted for tomorrow– we’d be subsisting on very little. i’m not a fan of importing water from South Pacific Islands, but it’s been a huge relief to eat an apple, banana or a clementine during this horrible weather. It’s all about finding the right balance.

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    About Me

    I'm a writer based in Portland, Oregon. My work has appeared in the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, the New York Press, The Big Money, sp!Ked online, the Epoch Times, the Daily NK, and others. From 2005 to 2007, I wrote a column on culture and politics for the (alas, now defunct) Seattle-based Internationalist Magazine. In so doing, I filed dispatches from Berlin, Seoul, Paris, New York, and, yes, Reno - among other places. In 2009, I reported on business from Shanghai. I attended Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

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