Posted by: seanmichaelbutler | February 7, 2011

The Ethics of Eating


Humans have always created ethical guidelines for what should be eaten and what shouldn’t. This is a natural inclination for a species that can eat just about anything, and believes in separating good from bad. In the past, these guidelines were often religious – kosher or halal, for instance – while in more recent times they have been based on more personal ethical codes, such as vegetarianism or veganism.

Organics has been a particularly successful modern incarnation of this inclination to divide good food from bad. Yet organics has fallen partly victim to its own success, as mainstream acceptance has translated into a perceived watering-down of its former ideals, and the loss of faith amongst many who were once its most ardent supporters.

Enter the local food movement.

Food localism can be seen as a reaction to the partial co-optation of organics by agribusiness. This explains why it is often presented in opposition to organics – local versus organic. While there is a strong and growing contingent of farmers who live up to both these ideals, it is true that we are sometimes forced to choose. Hypothetical questions that pit these two value-added labels against each other are easy to come by: which is better, a locally grown, but pesticide sprayed pint of raspberries, or organic ones, trucked in from California?

To answer that question, we must first define “better”. Does “better” mean less environmental impacts? If so, what are the environmental impacts of our two contrasting pints of raspberries? Obviously, the local one used pesticides, with all their associated environmental costs (destruction of beneficial fauna along with the pests, contamination of land and water, detrimental health effects on humans), and the organic one used diesel. But that is just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. To truly tally up the full environmental costs, we must look at much, much more.

Synthetic fertilizer for instance; it’s used on our conventionally grown, local raspberries, but verboten in organics. Its manufacture accounts for a huge share of the total energy consumed by agricultural production: as much as one half.

Or roads; the trucks that shipped our organic berries to market needed something to drive on, and all that asphalt is incredibly expensive (economically and ecologically) to manufacture, install and maintain.

A far from complete list of other factors to add to our balance sheet could include: origin of organic fertilizer and how far it traveled, the manufacture of capital equipment like tractors and tractor-trailers, topsoil loss or gain, soil compaction or salination, greenhouses, irrigation, carbon sequestration in the soil, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from animals and fertilizer, refrigeration, how the energy that ran the refrigerators was generated, processing, packaging, how the food was transported to the store, costs associated with the retail store, how you got to the store and back, the efficiency of household appliances, and disposal. This sort of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), which looks at the total environmental impact of a product from “cradle to grave” (or, in the case of food, from “farm to fork”), is gaining popularity amongst researchers.

But even all this still only looks at part of the picture.

To go back to our attempt to define “better”, surely “better” must include not just environmental considerations, but social ones too. For starters, what about workers’ wages and conditions? To take an extreme example, the ultimate eco-green-enviro-bio-farm, delivering its produce by unicycle (because one tire uses less resources than two), could hardly be considered ethical if it employed slave labour.

Having invited the workers into our circle of care, we would be remiss to not include their employer – the farmer – as well. Were these raspberries produced in a way that respected her right to earn a reasonable livelihood from her work? Did she have to work two off-farm jobs, in addition to full-time work on the farm, so that we could have raspberries for a few cents less?

Building on the economic viability of individual farms, we’d do well to also consider the economic viability of rural communities. Some food can be grown in cities, and some livelihoods besides farming are available in the country, but a large part of the health and viability of rural communities – indeed, of this distinct society – will likely always be tied to the health and viability of farming.

Things are starting to look pretty good; we’ve figured out how to tell if our berries are produced in an ecological manner, if everyone’s labour is being valued, and if rural communities are being supported. But wait – assuming we can find such karmically upbeat berries, can we afford them? Now that the environment, workers, farmers, and communities are no longer paying the price for our cheap berries, we’ve got to pay it. Affordability inevitably becomes an issue for the poor when you internalize formerly externalized costs, and it needs to be addressed in any approach to ethical eating. 

Staying with the consumer for another moment, we could shift our focus from affordability to quality: taste, nutrition, and an absence of toxic residues or contaminants. Despite the impression fostered by industrial-scale agriculture that, say, all Macintosh apples are basically the same, differentiated only by price, the resurgence of organics, food localism, and heirloom crops has reintroduced the qualitative to food. Fortunately for our sanity, this is one area where there is a good deal of overlap between environmental and social values, for it so happens that the most ecologically-benign farming practices also produce the healthiest, tastiest food. Crops grown in healthy soil tend to taste better and hold more nutrients, and if they are organic they won’t have been grown with the aid of pesticides, sewage sludge, or strange genes (as is the case with GMOs). Conventionally raised food, on the other hand, is produced to feed a global distribution system first, and people second. Little wonder that varieties are selected primarily for ease of harvest, shippability, and shelf life. Even if local farmers grow the same mass-produced varieties, at least their produce is fresher, with more of its nutritive and gastronomic qualities intact.  

The final two social factors we might want to consider are more amorphous, yet may be the most important of all: connection to land and connection to people. One could argue that many of the environmental problems already alluded to stem from an estrangement of people from the land (that is, a sense of how the Earth sustains them), just as many of the social problems stem from the estrangement of one person from another. One could then go on to make the case that food – engaged with heart – could go a long way towards repairing both these schisms. Think of how gardening, or gathering, or fishing, or buying directly from someone who did any of the above can make you feel closer to the natural world. Think of how much better a meal is when shared with others.

We’re almost there now, but there’s still one more consideration. We’ve covered the environmental impacts, from the soil that nurtured the raspberry bush to the recycling facility that pulped the paper container we bought them in. We’ve reflected on the human impacts, from the health of communities to the health of individuals. We’ve even brought the whole discussion full circle with that weird talk about “connection”. What could possibly be left?

Animals. If you don’t want to kill animals in order to eat them, then the choice is simple: don’t eat meat. You may also want to consider more indirect ways that your eating habits contribute to the death of animals; the life expectancy of male chickens and dairy cattle, for instance, is quite short, and they get born in equivalent numbers to their egg and milk producing sisters. Even organic-eating vegans should be conscious of the source of the fertilizer used to grow their veggies – did it come in the form of manure from an organic cattle ranch, or solely from plant sources such as compost or green manure? And if they are relying on synthetic fertilizers, the greenhouse gasses resulting from their manufacture will likely kill far more animals than all the abattoirs in the world.  

If your concern is to minimize the suffering of animals raised for milk, eggs, or slaughter, then things get a bit more complicated. If you are buying from a local source, you can go check out the operation yourself to see if it meets your standards of humane treatment. If you’re buying organic, you can take some consolation from the fact that animals not fed antibiotics have to be kept healthy the old fashioned way: exercise, good food, and low levels of stress. There are also labels like “free range” and “ethically raised” that go to the heart of the problem – although you’d do well to look into what exactly they mean. And keep in mind that some of the worst abuses of farm animals occur after they leave the farm gate – in transport and slaughter. 

If you eat wild animals, such as deer or fish, you’ll need to consider the welfare of not just the individual animal but of the species as a whole. In the case of deer, limited hunting can actually contribute to the health of the species in areas where humans have all but eliminated their natural predator, the wolf. Fish are another story; collapse and extinction from overfishing are serious concerns with many of the world’s fish stocks. And the emergence of “dolphin safe” tuna shows that you also need to take into account the impact harvesting techniques have on other species.

Beyond the individual species, we must also think about the role it plays in maintaining balance within the larger ecosystem. For example, the extreme overfishing of sharks means that more of their smaller prey are surviving; those smaller fish then eat more of the phyto plankton that would otherwise be absorbing carbon dioxide. So, by a chain of relationships that scientists are only beginning to understand, less sharks means more climate change.

As you can see, determining which is the better pint of raspberries is an extremely complex undertaking. First you must identify which of your values are relevant to the question of what to eat: in this case, broadly speaking, they are environmental sustainability, human well-being, and animal welfare. This ethical framework is subjective, but has broad appeal to modern society. Next you must consider which factors impact these values – from overgrazing causing environmental degradation, to the bankruptcy of the family farm precipitating the decline of rural society, to the cost-cutting policies of industrial feedlots leading to the suffering of animals. We should also note that not all impacts are negative; responsible agricultural management can build topsoil, increasing its fertility and capacity to sequester carbon, just as certain prairie ecosystems require periodic grazing by large animals to thrive.

One lesson that emerges from this complexity is that each of the ethical labels we now apply to food – organic, local, free-range, dolphin-safe, ethically-raised, grass-fed, hormone-free, Fair Trade, vegan – really only look at part of the totality of ethical eating. It’s like the parable of the blind men assuming that the smaller parts of the whole elephant they are feeling constitute individual animals. The first step to eating ethically is to see the whole elephant.

The other lesson is less easily resolved. You’ve probably already thought of it: how are we going to collect all the data necessary to accurately calculate some sort of Gross Ethical Index for our raspberries? And if we can calculate this hypothetical GEI, how do we encourage producers to increase the GEI of their products, and consumers to buy them?

* * *

Ethical behavior is impossible without information. You can’t choose to not buy a product that causes harm if you don’t first know about that harm. Yet the global food system shields consumers from almost all information about the products they buy. In the case of your average grocery store apple, you might know the following: its price, variety, country of origin, and, of course, appearance. That’s it. In the case of packaged food, there’s a bit more info: ingredients, nutrition facts, possibly a “best before” date, and anything else the company deigns to tell you (although actual appearance is often lost to an idealized depiction). This degree of information obviously falls far short of the amount needed to make an ethical decision.  

So first, we need a way of gathering all the necessary information. In a globalized food system, the amount of information is quite complex. To analyse the packaging alone of a can of soup would require tracing back several streams of raw and refined materials. This kind of analysis is obviously far beyond what one individual or even a small collective could hope to undertake – only large institutions like governments, businesses, and NGOs could do it.

However, the more locally sourced the food is, the more feasible it becomes for small groups or individuals to ascertain its Gross Ethical Index. So, depending on how local the food is, we could place strategies for gathering information about it on a spectrum from very centralized (government) to very decentralized (individuals). 

Once the information has been gathered and analysed, the second step is to translate that knowledge into solutions. Most people want to be ethical, and once they become aware of harm caused by their actions, seek to eliminate or at least reduce it. I can think of four possible solutions to the harm caused by our food system: regulation, fiscal policy, labeling, and food localism. Again, these solutions can be placed on a spectrum, from very coercive (regulation) to very non-coercive (food localism).

These solutions are not mutually exclusive. I will look at the advantages and disadvantages of each in turn.


The government could simply use its regulatory powers to compel the agri-food industry to abide by ethical standards. While this approach has an appealing simplicity – and is undoubtedly necessary in some areas to provide iron-clad protection for human and animal welfare – several objections spring to mind.

One, it would be expensive to expand the bureaucracy to study, oversee and enforce the new agricultural rules. Because it is cheaper to regulate a few large firms rather than many small ones, there would be further pressure to centralize food production, which could put the final nail in the coffin for small family farms.

Two, only one set of rules could be agreed to for all; inevitably a sizable portion of the population would feel that the rules do not satisfy their personal ethics. Furthermore, the rules would be decided by a small bureaucratic elite. The ethics of eating would be homogenized and centralized.

And three, nobody likes new regulation, especially an independent breed like farmers, who are already chaffing under the existing level of regulation. It is unlikely that they would cooperate cheerfully with such intensive oversight. And even if they did agree with the intent of the law, usually the letter of it doesn’t allow for creative solutions. Regulation is an inflexible, one-sized-fits-all approach. 


Governments could tax activities that don’t support the public’s widely held values and subsidize those that do. This could be accompanied by a lowering of taxes on positives like employment or profits – the same as the “green tax shift” advocated by many environmentalists, except extended to include human and animal concerns. At a minimum, the goal would be to provide a cost disincentive to produce goods unethically; if producers persisted in unethical ways, they would have no choice but to pass their higher costs on to consumers, who would then face their own price disincentive when buying the product.

The fullest realization of this idea would be to quantify the value of the environment, community, and everything else we hold dear (there are economists trying to do this), calculate how certain activities impact those values (for example, a smokestack detracts from the value of the atmosphere, while a tree adds to it), then include the cost of these activities in the price of the product through taxation. In effect, it would correct a massive market failure, for the market only functions properly when all costs are accounted for in the price of a product. Since the environment, community, and animals cannot charge for the costs certain forms of production inflict on them, the government could essentially charge producers on their behalf. It would then be up to the market to decide what was the most efficient way of doing business.

The advantages of this market approach are that it has at least the appearance of being less coercive, and more objective, fair, and decentralized. Yet it shares all the disadvantages of regulation (expensive to oversee, homogenization and centralization of ethical standards, unpopularity of new regulation or taxes), with one important addition.

It is unclear whether taxing “bads” like pollution will shift behavior as dramatically as anticipated, particularly if, through “tax shifting”, the government’s revenue becomes more dependent on the bads. One need only look to gambling or alcohol to see how a government’s conflict of interest between discouraging “bad” behavior through taxation and encouraging it as a valuable revenue stream tends over time to slide towards the latter. It may be that where the funds raised through such taxation are directed is crucial; if they go into general revenue, then governments may be more tempted to encourage the activities that produce them; if, however, they are directed towards offsetting the damage caused by those activities (not always possible – how do you “offset” the loss of a loved one to a cancer caused by pollution?), then the government will have a much stronger incentive to follow through on the purpose of the tax in the first place. If this is the case, though, then tax shifting would not be feasible – the government would still be dependent on revenue raised through income taxation and other more conventional means.

It is interesting to note that both regulation and taxation begin at the same place (government) and are aimed at the same end (a curtailment of unethical practices). Yet we in the capitalist world seem much more amenable to being told that something is too financially expensive than ethically expensive. Money is our supreme arbiter, and if making the most unethical products the most expensive is the way to our hearts, then this solution – despite its drawbacks – has something to recommend itself.


Governments, private companies, and non-profits could create product labels that go beyond the current hodgepodge (organic, local, Fair Trade, nutrition facts – only parts of the elephant) to create labels that address the broad range of ethical concerns. Labels could take the form of either certificates awarded to producers who meet certain standards, or information labels that present some form of Gross Ethical Index, with perhaps a breakdown of some major sub-categories (greenhouse gas emissions, workers’ pay, etc.). The great thing about this solution is the low level of coercion involved: in the case of information labels, companies would just be required to submit their operations to analysis, and to publish the conclusions on their packaging; in the case of certification, producers would only adhere to the label’s standards if they chose to. In either case, consumers would still be free to buy whatever products they wished – yet now armed with the information they need to make a more ethical decision.  

On the down side, this approach shares with regulation the fact that it would be expensive to oversee. It also shares the problems of the homogenization and centralization of ethical standards. If information labels are to be useful as a means of comparison between products, then one methodology of calculation has to be applied to all. That means that one institution, most likely government, would determine which considerations to include in the index and how much weight to give to each in calculating the final number. This drawback is lessened somewhat in the case of certification, as several different certifiers could offer competing ethical visions for producers and consumers to choose between.

However, certification has its own mark against it: unlike regulation, which does away with unethical products, or taxation, which makes them more expensive, certification singles out certain ethical products and makes them more expensive. Part of this price premium likely derives from the actual production practices being more expensive, part from the added cost of certification, and part from an increased willingness of richer consumers to pay. This leads to the tragic misperception that we cannot afford to be ethical, when in reality the opposite is true: we cannot afford to be unethical. Right behavior towards land and life will ultimately determine our longevity as a species.

Finally, labeling also implies that there is a label in the first place. Unpackaged, unprocessed foods are often the most healthy, sustainable food available – and packaging is a great source of waste. Labeling regulation can also often be difficult for smaller, cottage industries to comply with, discouraging them from entering the marketplace. These small businesses create many jobs, and are the mainstay of the last approach I will discuss, food localism.

* * *

Put simply, food localism describes consumers’ desire to eat food that grew close to where they live. To an extent it also describes the desire of harvesters to sell food to a local market. What it comes down to is society’s desire for greater connection between the different elements in its food chain.

This solution differs fundamentally from the first three in that it is not a policy, but a social movement. Certain policies can support this movement, such as offering subsidized land or buildings for farmers’ markets, but in the end food localism springs from the people. This approach also differs from the others in that it is both a solution and a way of gathering the information needed for that solution. Consumers gather information on a scale that is accessible to them (from local producers), then put that information into action by buying from those local productions they consider the most ethical.


The chief advantage of food localism is that it empowers consumers with firsthand knowledge of their food’s provenance, removing the need for legions of researchers to investigate its impacts. It also puts the agency squarely in consumers’ hands, to act on their knowledge and particular ethical beliefs through their food purchases, rather than have those decisions made on their behalf by bureaucrats or technocrats. Food localism shares none of the common disadvantages of the other solutions: centralization, homogenization, coercion, and the burden of administration. Instead, these negatives are replaced with the positives of (usually) pleasurable human interaction and the strengthening of community ties.

Note that food localism implies a real connection between producer and consumer; it is not enough to simply buy food you know was grown locally. To do so is really just another form of labeling, as indeed some regions have created “local” labels. The whole idea of food localism is that you have firsthand knowledge of how it was produced, rendering the need for labels moot. Labels are appropriate for an anonymous global food system, not local food. There is little value in knowing only that food is local – except that it is probably fresher and has less food miles associated with it. But even food miles is a flawed measurement because it matters more how the food was transported than how far – the same amount of fuel can transport 5kg of food 1km by car, but 3,800km by ship. In order for food localism to be an effective catalyst for more ethical food consumption, and not just another food fad, consumers must get to know their farmers and the farms their food comes from. 

Note also that ideally food localism shouldn’t just refer to consumers buying locally raised food, but also to producers buying their inputs (seeds, fertilizer, fuel), and processors buying theirs (such as grain for a flour mill) locally. The ethically conscious locavore may be able to find out a lot about how their local farm is run, but it becomes much more difficult to track down information about all the farm inputs if the farm itself is buying them from afar. The more the entire food system becomes relocalized, the better equipped consumers will be to make the right decisions.

Another advantage of food localism is that, by creating a market where producers can sell smaller quantities directly to consumers at a higher price, it tends to support smaller farms. And there are many good reasons to want smaller farms: more people making a living from the same landbase leads to a revitalization of rural communities; they tend to be more diversified, which means more sustainable; they are as a group much more productive than larger farms; they can be less mechanized; they don’t produce the excessive concentrations of manure that is a problem with larger livestock operations; and animals tend to get treated better when they are one of several dozen rather than one of several thousand.

Besides supporting smaller producers, food localism, at its best, represents a synergistic intersection of many other goods: consumers more empowered to hold producers accountable to ethical standards; producers more empowered to educate consumers about ethical standards and the realities of farming; money circulating more within the local economy, thus distributing wealth more equitably; fresher, tastier, and healthier food; less transportation; more diversity of foodstuffs from region to region, thus increasing food security; and better adaptation of seeds to local conditions. Add it all up and it seems food localism has at least the potential to check off a great many of the ethical considerations discussed earlier. 

Lastly, there’s the “connection” piece. Food localism strengthens connection to one’s land and community. And stronger community means less harm, because most people have a much harder time causing harm to those they personally know than to distant strangers. While connection allows consumers a greater ability to hold producers accountable, producers have consciences too, of course, and are much less likely to sell unhealthy food or dump pollutants into the environment if these actions will harm people they know. And less harm means more ethical food. So, in a positive chain reaction, food localism builds community, then community strengthens ethical food.


But how likely is food localism to gain the level of popularity necessary to make a significant impact on the food system? There are reasons to believe that it may. For one, it has a wide appeal: conservatives like it because it supports rural communities, liberals because of its positive environmental impacts, gourmands because of the better taste and more distinct varieties, the health conscious because of the improved nutrition, and almost everyone prefers to support local businesses over transnationals. Witness the runaway success of the Slow Food movement. While Slow Food attracts mostly the well-to-do, financially strapped producers also like it because it allows them to sell at higher prices.

However, if local food is more expensive, then there is one group not likely to buy into it: people on limited food budgets – a group that represents a sizable portion of the world’s population, and therefore a major obstacle to food localism gaining wide acceptance. Part of the reason globalized food is often cheaper is subsidies – both for large farming operations and transportation networks. Subsidized food is rarely if ever grown for local markets. This is one example of how the fiscal policy solution, discussed earlier, can play a supporting or even contingent role in the food localism approach.

Another reason for cheap globalized food is the still relatively low price of oil. However, as oil supply dwindles and demand increases, its price will inevitably continue to rise. Barring the development of alternative energy sources that can move vehicles at a price comparable to oil, or large increases in fuel efficiency (both very real possibilities, to be sure), the cost of transport, and therefore the sale price of globalized food, will rise. (The end of the age of oil will also likely spell the end for synthetic fertilizers, which are made from fossil fuels. This development won’t necessarily translate into food localism, but it will force agriculture into more sustainable, healthy relationships with the land.) 

But probably the biggest reason – from the industrialized world’s perspective – that food from other countries is cheaper than local food is simply that the wages paid to workers in many other countries are a fraction of what they are locally. This is a good example of how the unethical nature of our global distribution of wealth spills over to induce or force large numbers of us into supporting potentially unethical food systems. With the two issues thus linked, the question then becomes, how do we best correct this wealth imbalance, and how specifically might our food system be able to help correct it?

It could be argued that globalized food is perhaps a good way to redress this wealth imbalance – that the more food we buy from poor countries, the more wealth we’ll redistribute to where it’s most needed. Unfortunately, such a line of reasoning overlooks the fact that very few of our food dollars go to the people who actually grow the food. The reality is that the international distribution of foodstuffs is controlled by a few large corporations who hold all the cards; because of their poverty, the farmers who sell to them don’t have the luxury to bargain for better prices, and must sell at whatever price the distributors are willing to offer, which is usually just enough to keep them barely afloat. No surplus is made to reinvest in their families, businesses, communities, or countries, and they remain mired in poverty. Meanwhile, the international distribution and processing companies make healthy profits, and their employees spend their wages back in the industrialized nations where the food dollars originated from. Even in the industrialized world, most farmers face the same powerlessness in setting decent prices for their produce; but at least there they have access to subsidies, or the option of selling their farm and finding other work (probably in a city) – or turning to local markets and selling direct to well-off consumers who can afford to pay more for local food. This last option is a strong argument in favour of food localism for producers, but unfortunately not one available to many poor farmers who live surrounded by other poor people who can’t afford to buy their food.

It is hard to have a globalized food system without large companies controling its international distribution (but not impossible – Fair Trade does it), a fact that leads innevitably to an imbalance of power between the primary food producer and the secondary industries they must sell to. Without a decent return flowing to agriculture, it cannot afford to produce ethical food. This then represents a strong argument against a globalized food system supporting ethical food.

If farmers in poor countries are to gain the power to effectively bargain with their distributors and thus truly benefit from international trade in their products, they must first rise from the state of backs-against-the-wall desperation many are currently in. The catch-22 of capitalism is that you need money to make money, and poor farm families (who number about two billion people worldwide) need a little extra money in order to start raising themselves and their countries out of poverty. But where is this little extra to come from if the market won’t provide it? It can come from international aid, but, while aid can do a lot of good, there are many serious problems with any form of charity – not the least of which is the dignity of those on the receiving end of it. Worse still, the influx of free goods and foreign workers that often accompanies aid can destroy local commerce, ultimately deepening the poverty.

A far better solution is the “hand up, not hand out” provided by the Fair Trade movement. It does an end run around the capitalistic catch-22, linking caring and ethical consumers to poor communities through above-market prices for their products, and cutting the profit-making middle-man out of the equation. If the Fair Trade movement continues to spread and captures a significant market share, eventually poor farmers around the world will be able to raise their material well-being up to a level where they can demand fair prices on the free market without the intervention of an external organization. Success for Fair Trade would be to make itself redundant – fair trade in a free market.

Interestingly, Fair Trade actually supports food localism – by raising the price of globalized food to a level more on par with local food. Consumers are then free to choose between a more ethical global food product and a more ethical local one, without price considerations seriously influencing their decision. As such, this represents another example of how one of the first three solutions discussed – in this case, labeling – could work in concert with food localism. Another solution – regulation – could take it even further if it mandated that all trade be fair; for as long as there is unfair trade, fair trade will be relatively more expensive, and most poorer consumers won’t buy it. Many have spoken of the need to put fair trade principles onto the agenda of organizations like the World Trade Organization, and the arena of international trade is an appropriate place for government regulation, since it is so far beyond the control of smaller entities. If all global food were fairly traded, and perverse subsidies were removed, local food could compete on a much more even playing field; if cheap transport were also taken out of the picture, local food would probably have the price advantage.

In the absence of fair trade and other mechanisms for leveling the price difference between local and global food, another way that labeling could be so used would be for governments to require that all food that travels more than, say, 100 kilometres to carry a label displaying its Gross Ethical Index (GEI). If the cost of conducting this analysis were included in the product, it would serve to raise the price of non-local products, putting them more on par with local ones. The implicit assumption of such regulation and labeling would be that consumers are able to find out the GEI of local foods for themselves, whereas they need third-party labelers to inform them of the GEI of products from afar. Labels for non-local food make much more sense than labels for local food.

There are two key concepts to keep in mind when thinking about the price problem of local food: the price relative to other foodstuffs, and the price relative to one’s income. In Canada, the relative price of local food, compared to imported, is usually higher. However, one must keep in mind that food prices in Canada are very low compared to other industrialized countries, and that the price of local food relative to the average Canadian’s income is still quite affordable. For most Canadians, the choice of higher priced local food (or other food they know to be ethical) probably means only a slight sacrifice of other consumer goods. People commonly buy more expensive, better quality goods as they move up the income ladder – why not with food? It’s a matter of first recognizing that some foods are more ethical than others, and then valuing the positive effects of ethical food on both oneself and one’s world.

For poorer Canadians and billions of those in poorer countries, however, the price of food relative to their income is much higher, and they have no such luxury to accommodate higher prices. Does this mean that the goal of ethical food being available to all should be abandoned? I would argue no, because promoting ethical food systems has a positive effect on alleviating the causes of poverty. More importantly, it should be clear that the problem is not the cost of ethical food, but rather the fact that large numbers of people do not have enough money to buy it. To lay blame on the cost of food and demand that prices be as low as possible in order to “feed the world” is to perpetuate an increasingly unsustainable agricultural system that in the short term will lead to more poverty and in the long term may threaten the survival of civilization itself.

The problem is clearly poverty, and, for many more reasons than the affordability of food, it urgently needs to be addressed by a broad range of solutions – one of the best being governments guaranteeing a sufficient annual income to everyone. In a world without poverty, the problem of ethical food costing too much relative to income goes away – as do many other problems.

Another issue affecting the potential effectiveness of food localism as a solution for addressing the issue of ethical eating is that it is essentially qualitative and subjective, while the other three are quantitative and more objective. No locavore visits a farm to test for coliforms in the stream or pour over the farmer’s accounts – clipboard and checklist in hand – as a certifier might. Most people have only the vaguest notion of how food is actually produced, and wouldn’t know what to look for. A locavore’s observations typically more take the form of “getting a sense of the place”, looking a grower in the eye, shaking her hand, talking to her, and “feeling things out”. Even if they are more knowledgable about farming, most consumers in face-to-face contact with their growers are not likely to be too confrontational. If a farmer’s ethics seem more or less aligned with one’s own, most people are content to assume that she is going about her operation in an ethically acceptable way. Food localism’s greatest strength – personal connection – is also its greatest weakness.

In a way food localism is like democracy: messy. But then at least it is democratic. Our food dollars are our votes, and unlike politics, we get to vote every day. But like democracy, we often fail to do our homework and fall for the façade of false salesmanship. Perhaps food localism is the worst of all systems – except for all the others.

* * *

It is fitting that this essay spent the most time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of food localism as a means to ethical eating, since food localism has probably done more than any other approach, in its short run so far, to bring these issues to the fore. Certainly labeling – organic and Fair Trade especially – has done a lot too (while regulation to date has done little good, and fiscal policy on the whole has had a negative impact).

But where labeling addresses individual issues, food localism seems to raise the question of competing considerations. What to do when food miles collide with organics? Or Fair Trade with freshness? Or vegetarianism with sustainability? Simple, one issue labels no longer cut it. Food localism throws wide open the barn door, forcing us to consider the source of our food in all its complexity. It represents a maturing of our thinking, and as such, whether we want it to be or not, it is already a central part of the answer to how to create an ethical food system.

But if food localism is to be the centrepiece of our approach to making food more ethical, then the other solutions discussed in this essay have important supporting roles to play. They are:

1. Regulate the really bads. Some things – like animal welfare or workers’ rights – shouldn’t be left to the marketplace or consumer choice. They should be strictly regulated.

2. Regulate fair trade, making it the norm in trading relations rather than the exception.

3. Regulate GEI labels on all non-local food, so that consumers have the information they need to choose ethical global food. Include the cost of this analysis in this food.

4. Utilize fiscal policy to end harmful subsidies and shift them to more beneficial ends. For instance, the billions currently spent annually to pay farmers to overproduce a few commodities (thus keeping prices low so the food processors can churn out cheap but mostly unhealthy food) could be redirected towards building local food systems (employing many more farmers than currently) and establishing elementary school courses where students learn about how food is produced.

5. Utilize fiscal policy to end poverty, or at the very least ensure that people can afford ethically produced food.

These five strategies, animated by the vitality of the local food movement, would go a long way towards creating a food system biased towards ethical food rather than unethical. 

Yet these five strategies, you may notice, all rely on government action. It could be years, if ever, before large governments enact such sensible policies. It may be up to individual consumers, farmers, fishers, bakers, brewers, and cooks, working together, to shift things –  without much help (and possibly hindrance) from governments. Here’s what we can do, as individuals and within groups:

1. Learn about how food is produced.

2. Decide, based on your values, what ethically produced food would look like to you. Make a list of considerations.

3. For each product you’re thinking of buying, try to find information on as many of these considerations as possible. This part is hard – but working in groups and sharing information lightens the load.

4. Vote with your food dollars on the most ethical products you can find.

5.   Remember that ethical responsibility doesn’t end the moment you spend your food dollars; it also applies to how you transport the food home, how you cook it, how you utilize the waste, etc.

If you’ve gotten that far, you’re doing really well. But if you want to take it to another level:

6.   Become an ethical food activist. This could take many forms: conduct research and educate others, lobby governments, ask producers to improve their practices, start or work with initiatives that one way or another help make ethical food happen.

Food is vitally important. Besides being one of the few things we cannot live for long without, eating food is also, along with our vision, hearing and touch, one of the chief ways we interact with the word. Yet eating is in a class of its own – for vision and hearing are just passive receivers of light and vibration, and touch, which has both its passive and active aspects, is rarely so violent as our teeth and intestines are routinely to the poor morsels of food we ingest. Our choice of what to eat has a very real effect on the world around us, but it also has a very real effect on ourselves. Food, water, and air – these are the material bridges between ourselves and the world, and of the three, food is the only one where a complexity of choice exists. Food is outside matter made internal, pieces of the world used to construct, for a period of time, our selves. As such, the choice of what to eat is close to the choice of what to be.


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