Economics and Ethics on Eating

When I was in college, my pastor (Ben) introduced me to the slow food movement. At the time, I was struggling with questions about the practice of eating intentionally, of what it would mean to engage in the food cycle and to eat well.  I was immediately taken in by the movement, loving the philosophy and ethics behind participating fully in the process from the fields to the table. 

Since then, in fact, I have found myself focusing more and more on what it means to be a ‘locavore’, exploring the ethics behind food production seriously as I try to sort out where I stand.  The arguments for and against different positions on how and why we eat what we do are as interesting, to be sure, as they are numerous.  And after much consideration and deliberation, I have found myself coming out of the process with an understanding of sustainable eating that I find to be not only healthy but spiritual as well.  I dream of a day when I might have the space to produce more of my own food rather than buying it from others, but because I cannot do that now I have made the decision to participate in buying local vegetables and local meat (I belong to a meat CSA located 65 miles from my house). 

 Lately, however, people have been introducing me to arguments against local eating such as this one.

Being that this argument is from the Economist, it of course focusing on the economics and efficiency argument against eating locally, claiming that the environmental cost can be just as bad if not worse when eating locally because non-renewable resources (aka gas/oil) that are used less efficiently by distributers but also by those who drive out of their way to get to local foods. 

Now maybe it is just me, but that argument doesn’t seem to fully address the issues relating to local eating.  First of all, the argument supposes that local food can’t get to you– personally, I have discovered that even in BOSTON, if you look for it you can find it.  Most grocery stores stock foods that are grown in local farms these days and label it, which means that you don’t always have to go far to find what you need.  Places like my Meat CSA have distribution drop-offs, meaning that there are fewer trips being made by individuals, not to mention that the CSA drops once a month, not every other day as in the case of people driving constantly to their super-market. Sure,  food might be transported more efficiently over long distances in the global economy, but that is also a function of genetic engineering that alters a vegetable so as to make it transport more efficiently.  Take, for example, the genetic manipulation of tomatoes which leaves them in uniform, almost boxy shapes and alters their composition to make them less prone to crushing (consequently also making them taste less like tomatoes).  Sure, it’s efficient, but if you put a tomato like that next to your average heirloom tomato, you can taste the difference as well as see it.  The conventional, heck even the organic varieties sold in the store, begin to have less appeal.

Barbara Kingsolver, author of “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ ultimately makes the argument that some things are worth waiting for.  As the Economist article indicates, it DOES indeed take more energy to grow tomatoes in greenhouses locally–but that is because they aren’t meant to be growing there in the first place.  Eating locally ultimately doesn’t translate into just growing whatever you would eat from the store in your back yard.  It means educating yourself about what is supposed to be growing in your local landscape in the first place.  It means committing to a lifestyle that engages the place you find yourself in already rather than trying to transform it into a microcosm of the global food economy.  Its about inner transformation, transformation that includes giving up that which is not meant to be where you are (in my case, no bananas and avocados in Boston). 

 There are a million arguments on both sides beyond  the Economist, but until these arguments take up more than the economics, seriously considering the ethics behind the choice and the full implications of the transition, I think I will stick to my Kale and Collards and save the tomatoes for a warm June afternoon.