by Jonathan Silver
In today’s blog post we’re featuring an article entitled “Has Local Gone Too Far?” by Jonathan Silver, a local writer, activist, and food philosopher.
No doubt, “buy local” is a contentious issue; the demand for foods labelled in some way “local” has exploded from virtually zero in the 80s to almost mandatory today. That said, the same people that absolutely demand local and shun people who don’t look demand local also buy oranges, kiwi and coconuts, use olive oil daily, and will wear clothes from the far reaches of the Globe.
Jonathan’s article puts things into perspective. Yes, buying local is great for many reasons but it isn’t the be all and end all. It simply is one of many values we must weigh when making a purchasing decision. Organic vs. Local vs. GMO-free vs. Ethically Raised vs. Grassfed vs. Free of Chemicals and the list goes on – all of which have merits.
At The Healthy Butcher, without a doubt we prioritize local when a quality, Organically-produced or raised product is available. But that’s not the case. Our 100% Grassfed Wagyu Beef imported from Firstlight Farms in New Zealand has easily become our best selling beef… why wouldn’t it, it fills a void we don’t have in Ontario. And our vote is to buy Organic imported strawberries over sprayed conventional local strawberries every time (especially because strawberries are always one of the dirty dozen, see: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php).
Has Local Gone Too Far
The importance of eating locally grown food has gained a strong presence in public consciousness—perhaps its presence is a little too strong. Being local is often considered the ultimate indicator of ethical food. But, in truth, local is just one of many factors we need to weigh in before putting an item into our grocery basket.
When a grocery store, a food package or even a farmer tells you that a product is locally grown, locally made or locally crafted, why is that a reason for buying it? To answer that question, it’s helpful to start from the bottom, by asking the most basic question: What does “local” even mean?
“Local” means, in the most basic sense, that the product you’re holding didn’t come from afar. But that raises another question: What counts as far away? A person who prefers Ontario-grown tomatoes might think tomatoes from Mexico are grown far away, yet another person might even avoid Ontario-grown tomatoes if they grow tomatoes in their backyard. Putting that question aside, it’s safe to say that if we want local food, what we really want is food that isn’t from too far away, whatever “far away” means.
So the next question we need to ask is why don’t we want food that comes from far away? Or to put it the other way around: Why do want food that comes from close by? There are many answers to this question. Let’s look at a few of them.
Reducing Carbon Footprint
Food from afar must travel long distances to get to us, and that uses fossil fuels. The idea seems simple: if you eat food that travels less distance from where it’s grown to where it’s processed to where it’s eaten, you will consume less fossil fuels.
But if you’re just interested in using less fossil fuels, sometimes it makes sense to buy the apple grown further away if it travelled a more fuel efficient journey on a freighter truck than the apple grown nearby that travelled an inefficient journey in the farmer’s van that got caught in stop-and-go city traffic. Mass freighting can create efficiencies in carbon expenditure that you don’t get with small-scale freighting.
Keep Money in the Community
Another reason to buy food from nearby is to keep money in your community. If you spend $100 on locally grown food, then a good part of that money will stay in the hands of local businesses, where local residents can use it to make local purchases again and again. When you buy imported foods, you’re paying for distributors and importers and wholesalers and insurers and warehouses who often have their head offices and shareholders outside your community, or even outside your country. Buying local food keeps money in your community; buying food from afar funnels money out of your community.
But if keeping money in community hands is what matters most to you, then sometimes you may be better off buying non-local food from a locally owned business instead of a locally grown product sold in Walmart.
Trust in the Supply Chain
Perhaps you like buying local food because small supply chains make it easier for you to know where your food is coming from. There’s something reassuring in holding an Ontario-grown apple in your hand—you can put some trust in the labour and farming practices that went into growing that fruit. Getting the backstory on foods from afar can be incredibly difficult or impossible.
But you don’t need to travel far away to find agricultural and labour practices you don’t like. GMO crops, inhumanely raised animals, heavy chemical footprints (think herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides) and monocultures all exist in Ontario. So if you buy local in hopes of avoiding practices you don’t like, sometimes the imported option will be the better one.
A lesser-known reason for choosing local is for the health benefits. Many nutrients degrade during transport (e.g. antioxidants oxidize), and many distantly-grown foods are bred for transportability instead of nutritional content. But if nutritional content is what you’re after, then sometimes it makes sense to choose the non-local option. For example, if you’re trying to make the most nutritious tomato sauce, then you’re better off going with imported canned tomatoes than locally grown tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are pasteurized and this process makes their lycopene content more bioavailable(1) than the lycopene in fresh tomatoes (lycopene might reduce risk of cardiovascular disease).
We Value Different Values
As you can see, buying local is about buying foods produced nearby, and there are many reasons why being grown nearby is important. I’ve listed a few of those reasons, but there’s a long list of other considerations: developing local food culture, creating a market for local varieties (which improves biodiversity!), having access to better information about varietals (“Is this tomato an Atomic Red or a Bolero?”), and building social relationships with food producers and manufacturers.
As if making good food choices isn’t complicated enough, other factors often weigh in and make things more complicated. As a conscious eater, no doubt you’ve experienced this before: You’re standing in the grocery store trying to decide between two options. There’s a pint of certified organic strawberries grown in California and there’s a pint of non-organic strawberries grown locally. Which do you buy: local or organic?
What’s happening in this scenario is you have to make a value calculation. There are two values weighing in on your decision—your value for local food and your value for organic food. This is why it’s important to get clear on just why local is important to you. Do you want local because you want to minimize your carbon footprint, or because you want to support local farmers, or because of another reason? If you want local mostly because you want to support local farmers, you can put down the Californian strawberries.
These complicated scenarios are ubiquitous in our food choices. Do you go for the locally produced GMO soy milk or the imported organic soy milk? Do you prefer the local butter produced by cows fed on GMO corn or the imported butter produced with cream from grass-fed cows? In the winter, do you eat pesticide-intensive greenhouse-grown local strawberries or organic strawberries trucked from Mexico? In February, do you eat local corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef imported from New Zealand? (Remember, grass doesn’t grow during Ontario’s winter months…and hopefully it never does)
Once you know your reasons for buying local, you’re in a better position to choose the food option that most aligns with your values—whether that option is local or not.
Making these decisions can feel overwhelming. But there’s good news! There’s no right answer in these scenarios. When we’re forced to make these sorts of calculations, we have to pick and choose the criteria that are most important to us based on our values. So instead of getting hung up on what is the right decision, try getting clear about what you value and which options align with those values.
If you’re interested in making ethical food choices, then it’s crucial to understand that “local” is just one of many factors to consider when evaluating options at the grocery store or farmers’ market. But it’s tough to dig up information on our food and make value-based calculations. The best way to avoid all this confusion is to make fewer decisions; find a trustworthy grocer who can answer your questions, and let them do the deliberating for you
Jonathan Silver is an activist and food philosopher. He tweets @silverjonsilver.
(1) Shi, J. 2000. “Lycopene in tomatoes chemical and physical properties affected by food processing”. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 40 (1): 1-42. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11192026