"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes it can be deceivingly easy to do things that feel ethical and right that actually aren't that ethical and right. Sometimes, things are not always as they seem, and the right thing is sometimes the wrong thing.
Today I'm going to address the most sacred of all the sacred cows in the food world: the local food movement. And what I want to show my readers is that, sometimes, it's actually more ethical to buy your food from far away.
But first a quick tangent, to make sure we're all on the same page of intellectual honesty about local eating in the first place. The first thing I want to do is make sure my readers wrap their minds around four key potential flaws of locavorism:
1) The cost and the carbon footprint of transporting food is a lot lower than you'd think--even when that food is shipped enormous distances.
2) Depending on the food, some of worst fossil fuel use comes not from food transport, but from the growing, picking and processing of food. Thus it saves more carbon to grow some foods on a large, more efficient scale, even if that means bearing incremental transport costs.
3) The largest source of fossil fuel waste in the entire food supply chain comes from your car when you make a trip to buy goods. This might be one of the most powerful ironies of the entire food industry.
4) Finally, as long-time CK readers well know, eating a meatless meal two or three times a week has a far greater impact on the environment than eating local.
At this point, I know I'll get some severe pushback from a few readers who are either emotionally invested in feeling good about themselves because they eat locally, or who simply can't handle the counterintuitive nature of this debate. To those readers I say this: please reread the quote at the beginning of this essay.
To the vast majority of my readers who can handle opposing ideas, feel free to explore the bibliography below for more on how going local isn't always as clear-cut as you'd think.
However, what you've read so far is all preamble. I want to use this as a starting point for an idea that should really bake your noodle:
It would be better for the world if we all purchased more food from developing countries.
Remember last week's article, where I talked about armies of perfectly nice church ladies sending free clothes to Africa--and unknowingly annihilating the textile industries in several countries? Well, instead of sending free stuff out to countries that...
a) aren't as poor as we think anymore,
b) don't necessarily need the things we send, and
c) should be building their own self-sufficient industries to help improve their standard of living,
...why not purchase more good and services from those countries and directly help them raise their living standards?
I'll give an example. Every year in late winter, you can buy clementines in our grocery stores here in New Jersey. Usually they come from Spain. But this year, for the first time, I saw clementines imported from Morocco, Spain's neighbor across the Strait of Gibraltar.
At first, I was racking my brain trying to think if I'd ever bought anything from Morocco, ever. Heck, the closest I've ever been to Morocco was watching The Bourne Ultimatum. But then I thought through it. Spain is a rich country, Morocco is not. In fact, Spain's GDP per capita is six times Morocco's.
The people who are picking clementines, the people who packing and processing these fruits, and an entire ecosystem of entrepreneurs who are investing in the future of Morocco's ag exports--why not support all of these people? Why not help this ecosystem, when it's likely that my support will make a more significant difference for the people of Morocco than it ever would for Spain?
This is why I look carefully at the country of origin labels on my foods, and I keep in mind this list of countries ranked by GDP per capita. And when I'm in my grocery store making a purchase, and I have a choice between a food from a rich country and a poor country, I try to bias my purchase to the poor country.
Readers, what are your thoughts?
Food That Travels Well (New York Times)
Math Lessons for Locavores (New York Times)
Food Miles (Wikipedia.org) Note this particularly useful money quote: "Food miles also ignore benefits gained by improving livelihoods in developing countries through agricultural development."
Food, Fuel and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage and greenhouse gas emissions.
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