The Tangled Ethics of Eating

    Written in 2010

    Last summer marked my awakening to local food. I distinctly remember standing in the Wakefield General Store, hand hovering over the imported organic lettuce from California, then slowly floating over to that head of cabbage from Quebec, and picking it up. And then: a virtuous glow enveloping the top of my head, halo-like.

    Judging by the explosion of articles in the media about local food around this time, my awakening coincided with a societal one. Soon I would help organize a wildly popular 100 mile dinner, be one-upped by a knot of enlightened farmers living in a valley near me who staged a one mile dinner, and join my first CSA. The concept of eating locally had found fertile ground in my worldview, grafting easily with my beliefs in local economies, environmentalism, and community, as well as my love of everything to do with food.

    But there were times when my newfound desire to eat locally conflicted with other values, such as eating organically – a dilemma familiar to every locavore. Of course the ideal is local and organic, but sometimes we are forced to choose. Which, then, is better? While the answer may be elusive, more questions are not hard to come by: Is it better to eat canned local tomatoes – considering the energy used to preserve them – or fresher imported ones, with their attendant transportation costs? Is a local greenhouse, sucking energy for its lights and heating, better than imported food? And what if getting to that groovy farmers’ market means a long drive, when there’s a food multinationals’ outlet just around the corner? Part of the appeal of food localism as an ethics of eating is its simplicity, yet the more I thought about it, the more sticky questions like these muddied the waters of my former conviction.

    Yet what divine authority could possibly answer such riddles? Who is omniscient enough to weigh all the myriad pros and cons and provide a solution? I turned, of course, to the closest thing we have to an all-knowing One: Google.

    But Great Google – as is its wont when consulted on complex matters – offered much inconclusiveness, many estimations, and a few contradictions. Clarity was scarce and insight rare. Yet I will share with you what little wisdom I may have acquired through the consultation of many a statistic and the pondering of many more hours still on the meaning of it all.


    Early in my search through the labyrinth of Google I stumbled upon what looked like the solution: LCAs. That stands for Life Cycle Assessment, and it’s an approach to measuring the environmental impact of a product by looking at everything that went into its production, transportation, consumption, and disposal. “Cradle to grave analysis” is a term thrown around a lot. An LCA for a lamb chop might look at the use of fuel, electricity, pesticides, fertilizer, fodder, transport, water, grain, and winter housing, as well as harvesting techniques, carbon sequestration, type of storage, and dozens of other factors. It would then add them all up to produce an aggregate number that could be compared to other products to determine which has the greater environmental impact.

    That’s just what one study did, comparing lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped to England, with lamb raised in the UK for the domestic market. It found that, despite being shipped halfway around the world, the NZ lamb only produced a quarter as much CO2 as the British lamb. This was due largely to the better climate for sheep in NZ, where there’s ample pasture and no need for winter housing. The study also found a less dramatic advantage in NZ apples.1

    Now, a couple of big Oregon coast grains of salt: this study only looked at CO2 emissions, not other greenhouse gases (GHG) or environmental impacts; and comes from a remote, agricultural country with a strong stake in food localism not catching on.

    For a study that looks at more than just CO2 emissions and offers a different perspective, we can turn to one put out by the originator of the “food miles” concept, Professor Tim Lang, of City University, London. He and a colleague looked at the hidden costs of food – costs that are externalized onto society and the environment and not included in its purchase price. They found that if everyone in the UK ate solely within a 20km (12.4 miles) radius, £2.1 billion a year could be saved; if they shopped by bus, bike, or on foot, instead of by car, a further £1.1 billion would be saved; and growing everything organically would save another £1.1 billion a year. The study concluded that “buying local is more important than buying green.”2

    The caveats here are that Lang defined “local” very narrowly – a mere 20km – and came up with the high cost of food transport by not just looking at costs to the environment, but also costs to society through road congestion.

    One last study: a couple of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, looking at GHG emissions from food, estimated that 83% came from production, while only 11% came from transportation. And of that 11%, only 4% was created getting the food from the producer to the retailer – the rest being emitted by the consumer driving to the grocery store and back.

    They also compared different foods’ GHG emissions, from farm to fork: red meat was the worst emitter, followed by dairy – thanks to methane produced by manure and nitrous oxide resulting from the chemical fertilization of pasture (both much more potent GHGs than CO2 ). They concluded that replacing 21 – 24% of the red meat consumed in the typical North American diet with chicken or fish would reduce an eater’s GHG emissions by as much as eating entirely local. Their bottom line: “buying local is not as important as what you eat.”3


    Much of what I read in these studies and others called into question the importance of food miles, but I was comforted by the words of James E. McWilliams, who wrote in a 2007 New York Times Op-Ed, “’Eat local’ advocates – a passionate cohort of which I am one – are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t [because] life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production…” LCAs seemed like the culmination of an idea; rather than just look at chemical use, as organics mostly do, or transportation, as food miles do, LCAs take account of the whole picture.

    Yet when I dug deeper to find all the good work that had been done to assess specific products from specific regions, I came up empty. All I turned up was that the UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, along with the Carbon Trust, was looking into LCAs for consumer labeling, and a vague reference to the Danes being far advanced in this regard. For the shopper at the grocery store trying to make ethical choices, LCAs were essentially useless because they barely existed.

    And then I realized why eating local is, for the time being at least, a vastly better strategy for ethical eating than LCAs: when we know our food producer personally, perhaps have even visited her farm, we are empowered to judge her operation first hand – and even directly suggest improvements – whereas a LCA, were it to even exist, would cost thousands of dollars to perform, be in the hands of specialists, and use methodology beyond the comprehension of all but a highly trained few. No matter how good the science, people will never trust it as much as they do a handshake and a look into a farmer’s eye. And that is one of the most important things that local food offers: to restore the connection between people, through restoring the connection between people and their food, which has been largely severed by the modern, globalized economy.


    This leads to an important point. In all the studies I came across, their criticisms of food localism focussed almost exclusively on one thing: food miles. While the critique of food miles makes some good points (even Tim Lang agrees that food miles are not the whole story, he just hoped they’d get people thinking, which, I think it’s safe to say, they have) the argument for food localism goes far beyond food miles. Despite his study’s findings (the third one I cited, from Carnegie Mellon University), Christopher Weber says, “Both myself and my co-author believe there are many good reasons to buy locally, such as supporting local agriculture. A lot of people say local food is fresher and better tasting.” Add to these reasons the facts that local usually means smaller-scale, more diversified farms (which has many benefits, both ecological and social), less processing (good for our health), more food diversity (good for food security), cutting out the middle-men (good for farms’ bottom lines), and – more abstractly but most importantly – fostering an appreciation for good food, community, and the landbase that ultimately supports it all. (Brainstorm for another ten minutes and I’m sure you could come up with more reasons still.) It’s a lot to ask of a humble potato: to repair the division between humans and their environment, but our mouth is our most intimate way of interacting with the world – as we literally take pieces of it inside us, letting them become us – and may be the best chance we have to reintegrate with that world.


    But this raises the point of what we mean by “local”. As part of this 100 mile diet I’m currently participating in, I bought some fish. Sure, the guy at the store said it was landed within 100 miles, but what else did I know about it? How, for instance, was it caught? Is the species over-exploited? Was there wasted by-catch? How much fuel did the boat use? What are the workers paid? I can’t even begin to answer any of these questions. How ethical, then, is eating this fish? All I can feel good about is that it wasn’t transported too far to get from shore to store, and that my money was kept circulating in the local economy. Its only other advantage is that it at least affords a greater potential of uncovering its history than, say, some frozen shrimp from Thailand.

    Clearly, although this fish came from within 100 miles, I have no more connection to its source than most of the anonymous supermarket food we buy. So a distinction needs to be made between two kinds of local food: food bought from a source you know well, as opposed to food that merely came from your region. It’s the difference between buying direct from a farmer, and buying something from a grocery store, labelled that it was grown in your state or province. So, based on our understanding of the relatively low importance of food miles in the total environmental impact of a product, one could argue that mere proximity is not enough – to truly get the benefits of eating local, you need familiarity with a food’s source as well.


    Yet food miles do matter more for some products than others. For instance, 90% of the GHG emissions from producing and shipping meat are generated during the production process,4 since methane and nitrous oxide “blow away” – in the words of Christopher Weber – CO2 in the supply chain. One could conclude from this that it matters relatively little how far away one’s meat comes from – we should instead focus on how the meat was produced. Conversely, with something like salad greens, a greater proportion of their total environmental impact is likely to be taken up by transport, and we can shift our priorities accordingly.

    This brings up the importance of which foods you eat, regardless of transport. Cows have probably the highest environmental impact, while other forms of meat, such as chicken and fish, have less, and vegetables have the least. So if locavores are serious about making sustainable food choices, they should return to an earlier food awakening, and take Frances Moore Lappe’s advice in her Diet for a Small Planet to eat lower on the food chain.

    While I suspect that this is generally good advice, I can think of three quibbles. Firstly, if the world’s one and a half billion cattle were not grazing the land, burping and farting methane, wouldn’t there be a comparable number of wild ungulates, doing the same? Secondly, prairie ecosystems need the presence of large, grazing animals to thrive. Surely this fact must reduce cattle’s environmental impact, if properly managed. (This exposes a problem with LCAs in general; they only look at negative impacts, and not ways that producers might actually be enhancing their environments, such as when a conscientious organic farmer builds soil.) Lastly, the environmental impact of food is typically measured on a per pound basis; if meat were judged against its protein content, it might fare better.


    While what you eat is important, when it comes to food miles, how it gets to you is also key. Here’s a revealing stat: the same amount of fuel can transport 5kg of food 1km by car, 43km by air, 740km by truck, 2,400km by rail, and 3,800km by ship.5 Although it is usually difficult to know how your food was transported, you can reduce its impact by avoiding the less efficient modes of transport. Most importantly, we should focus on the one leg of the transportation chain that we are in complete control of and has the biggest impact: driving to the grocery store.


    Indeed, the environmental impact of food after it passes into the consumer’s hands is often underestimated. One study of ketchup found that the energy used in storing it long-term in home refrigerators can dwarf the energy used in any other phase of its life cycle by a factor of two or more.6 According to several studies, household food storage and preparation account for 25-30% of the total US food energy budget.7 One of these studies concluded that optimizing the efficiencies of home appliances can yield savings that more than match those possible from more far-reaching and complex adjustments to agricultural production.


    But what about the question that launched all the others: if forced to choose, should I buy organic or local? I don’t think there’s one definitive answer that applies to all foods in all situations. But after reading more on some of the benefits of organics, I believe the balance is tipped in its direction. Consider this: just the manufacturing of synthetic fertilizers alone consumes 40% of the energy in US agriculture;8 and organic agriculture has 48-66% lower CO2 emissions per hectare than conventional agriculture9 (although lower yields can cancel out some of that advantage). Forced to choose between Quebec-grown non-organic apples, and organic ones imported by ship from New Zealand, I may choose the latter. On the other hand, if the Quebec apple grower was my neighbour down the road, then I would probably buy from him. Yet in many cases, the benefits of organics would seem to outweigh the negatives of transport.

    As organics have been steadily colonized by large agribusiness, many people are rightly concerned about the watering down of what was once meant by “organic”. Yet the local food movement offers a way back to the founding ideals of organics, provided the two ideas are combined rather than pitted against each other. The necessity of occasionally choosing between the two will hopefully only be temporary; as we buy more organics, more local farmers will make the switch, and, as we buy locally, we can encourage our food providers to go organic.


    One last issue keeps nagging me: poor farmers in the global south desperately want to sell their produce at a fair price to the rich global north; they often use hand and draft animal cultivation – as well as perennial crops – that have a much lower carbon footprint than their counterparts in the global north; and southern climates can produce many useful crops – year round – that cannot be grown in the north. You could say that this is one area where the global south has a definite “comparative advantage” over the north, and the potential to redress some of the grotesque wealth imbalance between the two.

    Yet there are two potential problems with buying food from the global south. One, obviously, is the huge food miles involved, coupled with the near impossibility of knowing your food producer. The other is that, thanks to agricultural subsidies and tariffs in the global north, and other manipulations of the market, the odds are seriously stacked against the south benefiting substantially from agricultural trade.

    Yet the first problem may be less serious that it seems. We’ve already seen how efficient ocean shipping is (expressed another way, it’s two to three times more efficient than rail, which is itself an order of magnitude more efficient than an 18-wheeler), and it accounts for over 99% of all international shipping. The globalization of food in the past few decades has only increased food’s total GHG emissions by 5%.10 So, depending on the journey the food takes to get to you, it can have quite a small carbon footprint. You can imagine that those living near a port or inland shipping route could eat imported food – especially light, high value foods like coffee, chocolate, tea, and spices – with a relatively clean conscience.

    Providing, that is, the second problem – unfair trade – is addressed. The immediate solution to this is clear: fair trade. Fair trade is brilliant in its simplicity, as it bypasses the warped economic status-quo by simply paying producers an above-market price. We need to be pushing for more (reputably certified) fair trade products, while encouraging others to buy those that already exist, such as with the Fair Trade Towns concept. (Communities must meet six criteria to be so designated, including support from city council, fair trade products available in stores, and fair trade products used in workplaces, faith groups, and schools. Last year, my home village of Wakefield, Quebec, became the second such community in Canada.) The more long-term solution is to phase out the $300 billion in subsidies the global north pays its (mostly large-scale) farmers, and shift that money to paying “reparations” to the global south for all the north has stolen from it, until we have a much more equitable world.


    The preceding analysis probably seems like a confusing muddle of considerations – but that’s life. “Buy local” is a useful rule of thumb for making ethical purchasing decisions. But we are not always able to and, with a bit of extra consideration, we can sometimes do even better. With that in mind, here’s a brief encapsulation of the lessons I brought back from the depths of Google:

    • While buying regionally carries some advantages, most of the benefits of eating local are only realized when there is a direct connection between producer and consumer. These benefits are many, yet should be pursued in balance with the following considerations:
    • Eat lower on the food chain.
    • Eat organic.
    • Eat food transported by ship or train, minimally by truck, and never by air.
    • Drive as little as possible to go grocery shopping, and if you do, buy in bulk.
    • Food miles are often not as important as how the food was produced.
    • Buy fairly traded products that can’t be grown in your climate.
    • If you can afford to, upgrade your home appliances to the most energy-efficient models. Or make your own power!
    • If we (collectively) can afford it, push for LCAs. Ask your grocer for details about a food’s production. Ask your parents/partner/friends. Ask the company that processed it. Ask your government to mandate LCA labeling. You’ll likely be frustrated by these inquiries, but at least they’ll get the message that people care about these things. If enough people care, and make it known, things will change.

    While the focus of this essay has implicitly been directed at answering the question, “What ethical considerations should I take into account when purchasing food?” the broader social context should not be overlooked. Although important, personal choice is not enough. If sustainable food is ever to be voluntarily embraced by more than an educated few, we must organize our voices collectively to change government policy. It has been the decisions of governments that have shaped our current food system, and it is only through governments that we will change things on the scale necessary to make the shift to sustainability.

    While looking to the future, we also shouldn’t abandon the past. Diet for a Small Planet still contains important lessons for all who care about food sustainability, and organics provide a solid foundation on which to build a sustainable food system. We should not allow the excitement surrounding new ideas – such as food localism – to push earlier advances from our consciousness.

    Neither should we allow our understanding of the primacy of environmental considerations (no planet = no nothing, after all) to blind us to other issues. The all-encompassing nature of environmental issues means, by definition, that they are inextricably intertwined with all other issues, including social. Environmentalists ignore social issues at their peril, since poverty is one of the main drivers of environmental degradation. That is why any system aimed at addressing food sustainability must also address the obscene imbalance in means between rich and poor.

    There are also problems of equity inherent in the trend towards food labelling. A label – whether it be for organics, fair trade, or local food – adds value and therefore makes a product less affordable for poor people. Yet labels perform an absolutely necessary function in an economy, like ours, that externalizes so many costs to society and the environment, by informing the consumer that at least some of those costs have been included in the product’s price. It’s a potent indication of how topsy-turvy our economic structure is, that the products that cause the least damage are the ones that generally cost more, and this creates the unfortunate perception that sustainability is something only the well-off can afford. Eventually, we need to move beyond food labelling – and the exclusivity that it engenders – to an economics that charges the true costs of production. Carbon taxes are a first step in this direction, and LCAs could play an important future role in calculating full costs and taxing production accordingly. With such a “green tax shift” in place (away from “goods” like income and towards “bads” like pollution), prices would make much more sense – with the most benign products costing the least – and we’d have a price incentive that made doing the right thing synonymous with saving money.

    For the time being, however, we can do much to enrich our local foodsheds by following the advice of a simple acronym (that cheats a bit with the use of a homonym): SOUL food – Sustainable, Organic, Local, and Ethical.

    1 A Lincoln University, New Zealand, study, cited in The New York Times, August 6, 2007, Op-Eds, James E. McWilliams, “Food That Travels Well”; and The Sunday Times, February 3, 2008, Richard Woods, “Why Long-Haul Food May Be Greener Than Local Food With Low Air-Miles”

    2A study by Jules Pretty, Essex University, and Tim Lang, City University, London, cited in The Independent, March 3, 2005, Steve Conner, “Buy Local Produce and Save the World”

    3A study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, Carnegie Mellow University, Pittsburgh, cited on, June 2, 2008, Jane Law

    4Tara Garnet, Food Climate Research Network

    5James Thompson, Dept. of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, UC Davis, personal communication

    6Anderson, K., T. Ohlsson, and P. Ohlsson, 1998, “Screening life cycle assessment (LCA) of tomato ketchup: a case study” Journal of Cleaner Production 6: 277-288

    7Hendrickson, 1996, Heller and Keoleian, 2000, Faist et al., 2001

    8Heller and Keoleian, 2000

    9El-Hage Scialabba and Hattam, 2002

    10Weber and Matthews