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Can You Do Good by Eating Well?

By Peter Singer, Jim Mason | March 1, 2006 | 0 comments

A new movement encourages people to eat food that’s grown close to where they live. The food may be fresher and taste better, but Peter Singer and Jim Mason ask if it’s more ethical to eat locally.

Mary Ann Masarech often buys her produce from Sherwood Farms, at least in the summer and fall. The farm has been owned by the Sherwood family since 1713, and Tom Sherwood, who runs it now, is the 17th generation to cultivate its soil. It is no longer a full-time occupation, though—he makes some extra money working as a carpenter, especially in the winter. There are still four generations of Sherwoods living on the farm—Tom’s grandmother, his parents, himself and his wife Christine, and their two small children. The farm has been reduced in size over the years and is now only 36 acres. Tom’s father, Schuyler Sherwood, grew mostly corn and tomatoes, with a few pumpkins for Halloween, but Tom has been branching out into eggplants, peppers, broccoli, onions, potatoes, carrots—“you name it,” he says. They sell only what they themselves produce and usually have about 200 customers on Saturdays during the growing season.

Mary Ann lives less than five miles from Sherwood Farm, and the freshness and flavor of Sherwood Farm’s produce are big reasons for her to buy locally. Tom finds his customers are very discerning about taste, and if he grows a variety that doesn’t have that homegrown flavor, it won’t sell. He can grow varieties that supermarkets don’t carry, bred for flavor rather than their ability to withstand transport and storage.

Greenmarket
Shoppers stroll through the farmers’ market in Manhattan’s Union Square. The number of farmers’ markets in the United States has grown rapidly in recent years, even in urban areas like New York City. Shoppers stroll through the farmers' market in Manhattan's Union Square. The number of farmers' markets in the United States has grown rapidly in recent years, even in urban areas like New York City. Greenmarket
A Guatemalan Mayan woman pours fair trade red coffee beans into a depulping machine. A Guatemalan Mayan woman pours fair trade red coffee beans into a depulping machine. Brian Atkinson

But you don’t have to live near a farm to buy from local farmers. On Saturdays, Manhattan’s Union Square, traditionally the site of rallies to defend the rights of labor and other leftist causes, is now crowded with shoppers stocking up on fresh produce from farmers who have driven into the city early that morning. There were, as of the spring of 2006, 54 of these farmers’ markets spread across different New York City neighborhoods, with 250,000 customers a week in peak season. New York City’s Council on the Environment, which organizes these “greenmarkets,” allocates stalls only to regional farmers who produce the food they sell. No middlemen are permitted.

The New York greenmarkets are part of a nationwide movement. In 2004 there were more than 3,700 farmers’ markets in the United States—more than twice as many as there were in 1994. The number is growing at an accelerating rate, with nearly 600 new markets added over the previous two years, as compared to only 274 new markets in the two years from 2000 to 2002. More than 19,000 farmers told a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey that they sold their products only at farmers’ markets. In fact, the USDA—a department widely criticized for being in the pocket of corporate agribusiness and hostile to small farmers—now hosts a farmers’ market at its Washington, D.C. headquarters and maintains a Web site that will tell you where your nearest farmers’ market is. Similar information is available from nonprofit organizations that seek to promote local, sustainable agriculture, like the Pennsylvania-based FoodRoutes Network.

There is even a term for those who eat only local food: locavores. We first heard the term when a group of self-described culinary adventurers from the San Francisco Bay area decided that, for the month of August 2005, they would make an effort to eat only food grown within 100 miles of San Francisco. They set up a Web site, www.locavores.com, giving their reasons for doing so and advice about what to buy. And this is not just an American phenomenon: In Italy, Carlo Petrini, a journalist, founded the “Slow Food” movement to protect “endangered” local foods from being driven into extinction by global brands. The growth of the movement has been anything but slow, and it now boasts more than 80,000 members in more than 100 countries.

But being a locavore isn’t just a fun and challenging personal experiment in eating, and people who make a point of buying their food from local farmers don’t only do so for added freshness and flavor.

When Mary Ann Masarech and her husband Jim were talking to us about why they buy locally-grown food, she mentioned that you are more likely to have some firsthand knowledge about the producer and its practices, and Jim said that, in addition to being fresher and riper, the food “hasn’t cost an ecological fortune in fossil fuels coming across the continent.”

Other advocates make essentially the same case for buying locally. In Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, Brian Halweil, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, asks: Isn’t there something wrong with supermarkets in Des Moines selling apples from China when there are apple orchards in Iowa? Halweil has also contributed to a Worldwatch Institute report which calculated that the average American meal uses anywhere from four to 17 times as much petroleum, and so is responsible for up to 17 times as much carbon dioxide emission, as a locally-produced meal.

These arguments are not simply about matters of taste or even personal health; they are about ethics.

We don’t usually think of what we eat as a matter of ethics. Stealing, lying, hurting people—these acts are obviously relevant to our moral character. So too, most people would say, is our involvement in community activities, our generosity to others in need, and—especially—our sex life. But eating—an activity that is even more essential than sex, and in which everyone participates—is generally seen quite differently. Try to think of a politician whose prospects have been damaged by revelations about what he or she eats.

Yet many groups and individuals that support the move to local food, such as the FoodRoutes Network, argue that eating locally brings with it substantial economic, social, and environmental benefits, and their arguments have ethical implications.

But is eating locally really a more ethical way to eat? We’ll consider three of the arguments made by the FoodRoutes Network, which are broadly ethical and seem representative of the claims many advocates make on behalf of buying local food.

Ethical arguments for eating locally

1. You’ll Support Endangered Family Farms

On its website (www.foodroutes.org), FoodRoutes says: “There’s never been a more critical time to support your farming neighbors. With each local food purchase, you ensure that more of your money spent on food goes to the farmer.”

The total number of farms worldwide fell sharply for most of the 20th century, and is still falling, if more slowly, now. The proportion of the population living on farms in the United States. has fallen from nearly 40 percent in 1900 to less than 2 percent today. In the U.S. there are now only 1.2 million people whose primary occupation is operating a farm, making it a nation with more people in prison than in full-time farming. A similar collapse in the number of farmers has occurred in all of the world’s developed countries and is now taking place in China as well.

The three poorest counties in the U.S. are in Nebraska. Agriculturally based counties generally have more people living in poverty, and more low-income families, than metropolitan counties. They also have a higher proportion of people under 18, but a lower proportion of those 18-44, suggesting that many young adults leave the farm and go to the cities. The upshot is that these counties also have twice the proportion of senior citizens as metropolitan counties. Lacking children, schools are closing and once-viable towns have been abandoned.

Iowa once had a diversified agricultural base that supported thriving rural communities. In 1920, ten different commodities, including fruit and vegetables, were produced on more than half of Iowa’s farms. But by 1997, those commodities had been reduced to two: corn and soybeans. With this increasing specialization, food processing plants closed. Most Iowa products now leave the state in unprocessed form. In 1920, about half of the apples eaten in Iowa were grown in Iowa; now the figure is down to 15 percent, and not many other locally consumed fruits and vegetables are grown there either. In an article in The New York Times last year, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who grew up on an Iowa farm and writes on rural life for the Times, looked back on the Iowa of his boyhood and found it difficult to imagine anywhere better to have been a child. But that idyllic place has been destroyed, he writes, by “the state’s wholehearted, uncritical embrace of industrial agriculture, which has depopulated the countryside, destroyed the economic and social texture of small towns, and made certain that ordinary Iowans are defenseless against the pollution of factory farming.” Klinkenborg’s solution is to “try to re-imagine the nature of farming.”

One way of re-imagining farming is to bring together the people who grow the food and the people who eat it. When that happens, the farmers get to keep almost all of the dollars the consumers spend on food, instead of the roughly 20 percent—and falling—they otherwise receive. Manufacturers, processors, advertisers, and retailers normally get all the rest. Transforming that situation could preserve family farms, keep people on the land, and revitalize rural communities, or at least those that are in reasonable driving distance of a metropolis. That would reduce the anguish of those people who are now watching their communities become modern ghost towns. Many farmers feel an irreparable loss at being unable to hold on to the family farm, a loss so deep it can lead to despair and even suicide. One survey has shown that five times as many U.S. farmers commit suicide as die from farm accidents.

Rural depopulation is not itself a bad thing. If people in China prefer to move to the city for employment rather than work long hours at hard physical labor on the land, it is good that they have this option. Besides, some “traditional rural values” are better forgotten. Rural communities can be stultifyingly narrow and intolerant of diversity. Inevitably they produce fewer opportunities for people with unusual interests to meet others who share those interests.

But some rural values are undeniably worth preserving. When people see themselves as custodians of a heritage they have received from their parents and will pass on to their children, they are more likely to cherish the land and farm it sustainably. If those people are replaced by large, corporate-owned farms with a focus on recouping the investment and making profits for a generation at most, we will all be worse off in the long run. So supporting endangered family farms can be an important value.

2. You’ll Strengthen Your Local Economy

FoodRoutes says: “Buying local food keeps your dollars circulating in your community. Getting to know the farmers who grow your food builds relationships based on understanding and trust, the foundation of strong communities.”

When Mary Ann buys her produce from Sherwood Farms, she values the transparency that comes with personal knowledge and an interpersonal relationship with the person who grows her food. That is a sound reason for buying locally—as long as you are able to talk to the farmers and they are open to their customers visiting their farms and taking a look at what they do. But not everyone has time for that, and trust and understanding need not be exclusively local.

Locavores.com takes a similar line to the FoodRoutes Network, saying that “buying locally grown food keeps money within the community. This contributes to the health of all sectors of the local economy, increasing the local quality of life.”

Is this an ethical reason for buying locally? The locavores’ San Francisco Bay region is one of the wealthiest local economies on the entire planet. In developed countries, most local economies near major centers of population are doing very well, by global standards. If we have the choice of using our purchasing power in our local economy or buying products imported, under fair terms of trade (see sidebar), from some of the world’s poorer nations, is there any merit in keeping our money within our own community?

When we think ethically, we should put ourselves in the position of all those affected by our actions, no matter where they live. If farmers near San Francisco need extra income to send their children to good colleges, and farmers in developing nations need extra income in order to be able to afford basic health care or a few years of elementary school for their children, we will, other things being equal, do better to support the farmers in developing countries. Thus we believe that the statement “keep your dollars circulating in your own community” is not an ethical principle at all. To adhere to a principle of “buy locally,” irrespective of the consequences for others, is a kind of community-based selfishness.

We wondered what Brian Halweil, the local food advocate and author of Eat Here, would have to say about this argument. In his response, he agreed that if Americans were to buy exclusively local fruits and vegetables, “Mexican garlic growers and Chilean berry growers would lose a big market.” But he added that his impression was that “of all the money spent on food exports, very little gets back to the actual grower and farm community. Most is gobbled by food traders, brokers, and shippers . . .  Personally, I think that First Worlders can best reduce poverty in their own backyard—among struggling rural populations and the burgeoning class of inner-city food producers—by eating local.” (By “inner-city food producers,” Halweil means community gardens and urban farms, which he grants are not yet producing on a significant scale, although he regards them as having great educational value in showing what can be done to produce healthy food.)

Halweil is right to point out that when food passes through many intermediaries, often only a small fraction of what we pay for that food gets back to the original producer. Researchers at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex found that Kenyan fresh fruit and vegetable producers received 14 percent of the retail price of their produce, while Zimbabwean growers of snow peas and South African peach growers retained about 12 percent. In the case of bananas, another study found that about 12 percent stayed in the producing country, but the plantation workers themselves received only two cents from every dollar the consumer paid.

Even in that last case, however, the small percentage that returns to the worker is insufficient evidence to prove that people in rich countries can do more to relieve poverty by buying locally. In our view, Halweil has not sufficiently taken into account the staggering differences in income between the world’s poorest farmers and America’s poor rural farmers. Consider some basic facts about global poverty. You may have heard the oft-quoted statistics that more than a billion people are currently living on about $1 (USD) per day, and about 2.5 billion on under $2 (USD) per day. But these statistics, expressed like that, are misleading. As anyone who has visited poor countries knows, what you get when you exchange $1 (USD) for the local currency buys a lot more than you could buy with $1 in the United States. So you might think that living on $1 (USD) a day isn’t so bad in some of those countries. But the statistics we’ve just referred to take that difference in purchasing power into account.

More accurately expressed, more than a billion people are currently living on less than what $1 (USD) per day buys in America. So, at current exchange rates, they might be living on what $0.30 (USD) (or some other amount much less than a dollar) would buy if that sum were taken to an impoverished country and then converted to the local currency. That’s a level of poverty that, for those of us living in the world’s wealthy nations, is barely imaginable. It means that people cannot be sure that they will have enough to feed themselves or their families. If they or their children become ill—which is very likely, because they may not have safe drinking water—they cannot obtain even the most basic health care. They cannot afford to send their children to school. This degree of poverty kills. Life expectancy in rich nations averages 77, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa it is 48. In rich countries, less than one child in a hundred dies before the age of five; in the poorest countries, one in five does. That means 30,000 young children are dying every day from preventable causes. Three in every four of these extremely poor people live in rural areas in South and East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these rural households in poor countries depend on agriculture for whatever income they earn—it is the only option available.

Suppose that we pay a dollar for beans grown in a developing country. Out of that dollar, after everyone along the supply chain has taken their cut, perhaps the worker who grew them, like the banana plantation workers mentioned above, receives just two cents. If that worker lives on 30 cents a day, or $110 a year, that two cents is almost one five-thousandth of his or her annual income. That may not sound like much, but we’ve only spent a dollar. If a thousand others also spend a dollar on those products, now we’re talking about a nearly 20 percent increase in the farmer’s income. That will make a bigger difference to the worker than the entire $1,000 would to an American farmer. When you are very poor, a small dollar increase in your income does more to improve your well-being than a far larger increase does when you are much better off.

That leads us to a conclusion that may seem surprising: If you have a dollar to spend on beans and you can choose between buying locally grown beans at a farmers’ market or beans grown by a poor farmer in Kenya—even if the local farmer would get to keep the entire dollar and the Kenyan farmer would get only two cents from your dollar—you will do more to relieve poverty by buying the Kenyan beans. This example is imaginary, but it illustrates how easily growth in agricultural exports can have an impact on rural poverty in developing nations.

But the story doesn’t end there. Sometimes supporting farmers in the developing world requires using jet fuel to send their goods halfway around the world. Fresh produce is often sent by air, whereas grains, coffee, and tea are more likely to travel by ship. How are we to weigh environmental costs against social gains? That question raises deep philosophical and factual issues that we cannot entirely resolve here, but we have offered a preliminary analysis below.

3. You’ll Protect the Environment

According to FoodRoutes: “Local food doesn’t have to travel far. This reduces carbon dioxide emissions and packing materials. Buying local food also helps to make farming more profitable and selling farmland for development less attractive.”

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is an important ethical concern. Nine of the ten hottest years since reliable record-keeping began in 1861 have occurred since 1994. There is a broad consensus among scientists that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are making a significant contribution to this pattern of global warming, and carbon dioxide is the most significant of these gases. The continuation of this pattern will mean more erratic rainfall patterns, with some arid regions turning into deserts; more forest fires; hurricanes hitting cities that at present are too far from the equator to be affected by them; tropical diseases spreading beyond their present zones; the extinction of species unable to adapt to warmer temperatures; retreating glaciers and melting polar ice caps; and rising sea levels inundating coastal areas. A far worse scenario cannot be ruled out: Some scientists believe that the melting of the ice caps could release huge amounts of methane that will accelerate further warming, forming a cloud layer so dense it will block out heat from the sun and cause the planet to go into a deep freeze that extinguishes life on earth.

Mitigating global warming is therefore a major issue, and because what every nation does has an impact on every other nation, it is an ethical issue.

The long distances that food travels in the United States is part of the high level of energy use in the U.S. food system as a whole. Food production, processing, manufacturing, distribution, and preparation consumes somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply. Per capita, the U.S. uses more energy for food production, processing, and distribution than Asia and Africa use for all activities combined. Nevertheless, transportation of the food is, according to one study, responsible for only 11 percent of the total energy used in the food system, as compared with, for example, home preparation, which uses 26 percent, or processing, which consumes 29 percent of the total. Nor is all transport equal in energy use. Transporting a given amount of food by plane uses the most energy per mile, almost twice as much as road freight and 20 times more energy than sending it by ship or rail.

While we agree that we have an ethical obligation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and that transporting food long distances requires energy and produces carbon dioxide emissions, it does not follow that we can always reduce carbon dioxide emissions by buying locally produced food. At Sherwood Farms, Tom Sherwood has put in a hydroponic system to raise early tomatoes in a greenhouse. He hopes to get them a month earlier so he won’t have to turn customers away in June when they come asking if the tomatoes are ready. He can also extend the tomato season into October. Much of the energy that ripens these tomatoes is solar heat trapped by the glass, but Tom has also put in an oil furnace that he estimates will cost him about $700–$800 dollars a year in extra fuel—at the prices current when we talked to him, that’s 350 to 400 gallons of heating oil. The greenhouse will hold 330 plants, and at around 20 pounds per plant, should produce 6,600 pounds, or 3.3 tons, of tomatoes. To recover his energy costs, he’ll sell them for $2.50 a pound, a 50 cent surcharge on what he charges for tomatoes from the field. His customers will be happy to pay that price, because Sherwood Farms’ vine-ripened tomatoes taste a lot better than supermarket tomatoes trucked in from Florida or California, most of which are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas.

If Mary Ann is concerned about reducing the impact of her purchases on energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, she should compare the amount of oil Tom will burn to warm his greenhouses with the amount it would take to truck a load of tomatoes from, say, Florida, where they can be grown without artificial heat. We did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and concluded that you could truck up from Florida the same quantity of early season tomatoes Tom was going to grow in his greenhouse for less than half the amount of fuel he was going to burn to produce them. In other words, Mary Ann would reduce her contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding her local farmer’s greenhouse-grown early tomatoes and buying tomatoes from Florida. This outcome is especially striking, given that Tom is using heat only to combat late frosts and assist the sun to grow the tomatoes earlier than he otherwise could. The most profligate tomatoes of all, in terms of energy usage, are those grown in heated hothouses in northern countries like Canada and the Netherlands and then exported to the United States. If they travel from the Netherlands by air, that is worse still.

The conclusion of that rough calculation points in the same direction as more careful studies of the energy impact of similar choices in other countries. A British study carried out for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed that buying local tomatoes outside the usual outdoor season was responsible for three times the carbon dioxide emissions caused by growing the tomatoes in Spain and trucking them to Britain. Of course, every situation is different, depending on the climate, the transport costs, the produce, the methods of production, how the greenhouse is heated, and, often, the season when the produce is bought. A Swedish study gave similar results to the British study for tomatoes, but showed that energy was saved when Swedes bought domestically produced carrots rather than Italian ones, because even in Sweden, carrots don’t need artificial heat.

Cutting your own energy use

To say that buying local food will reduce energy usage and hence carbon dioxide emissions is, at best, an oversimplification. The real story is much more complicated. People who do their shopping on foot, by bike, or by using public transport do best—but in developed societies today, the number who do that is decreasing. The British Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs study reported that the number of “food miles” traveled in urban areas in Britain has risen 27 percent since 1992, but this is largely because more people are using cars to do their weekly shopping, rather than walking to small local groceries. For many Americans, however, there simply is no choice—there are no local groceries in walking distance. Driving twenty miles in a big SUV to pick up eggs from a local farmer and then heading off in a different direction to get fresh local produce would almost certainly be less energy-efficient than buying everything at a single supermarket, even if the food has traveled further to get there.

Local foods, especially those bought at farmers’ markets, are often unprocessed. Processes like freezing, dehydrating, and canning all use energy—but they may also reduce the amount of energy we use when we cook at home. The chicken processing industry, for example, argues that it is more energy efficient for consumers to buy pre-cooked chicken, which only needs to be reheated. That claim isn’t entirely without merit, especially for people who use an electric oven—the least energy-efficient fuel for home cooking. But precooked chicken likely raises other serious environmental and animal welfare problems, which we discuss at length in our recent book, The Way We Eat. If we really want to save energy, we should buy only fresh, unprocessed local food, grown outdoors, and eat it raw, or with minimal cooking.

Following that policy would mean restoring seasonality to fruits and vegetables. People living in northern regions of America or Europe would have to go without fresh tomatoes, lettuce, or strawberries for the winter and early spring. That might seem a hardship that it is unrealistic to expect modern affluent consumers to undergo. It would, however, have the compensating benefit of reviving the now-vanished excitement that used to greet the arrival of the first fresh fruits and vegetables of the season. That’s no small gain. Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, argues that if not having some foods all year round is a constraint, it is much less of a constraint than “to be forced to eat standardized, tasteless industrial food products full of preservatives and artificial flavorings” and species of fruit and vegetables “with characteristics functional only to the food industry and not to the pleasure of food.”

Buying locally produced food is often the best ethical choice, but not because the food is locally produced. To reduce the amount of fossil fuel that is involved in producing our food, we should buy local food if it has been grown with similar energy efficiency to food from somewhere else—but not if the local grower had to burn fossil fuel to provide heat, and not if there is a lot of extra driving involved in picking the food up or getting it delivered.

“Buy locally and seasonally” is a better policy than simply “buy locally”—but it entails giving up a lot of the fresh fruit and vegetables we have come to enjoy all year round. Moreover, although it is certainly good to protect the environment and support local rural communities, we also have an obligation to support some of the word’s poorest farmers, and under fair trading conditions, the best way to support them can be to buy the food they produce.

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About The Author

Peter Singer, Ph.D., author of Animal Liberation and co-author of Animal Factories, is one of the highest profile writers on ethics today. Born in Australia, he has taught at Princeton University since 1999 and lives in New York.

  

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