Why Local?


Dan Hicks


February 23, 2013

[I feel like my blog posts tend to be pretty technical and academic. This post is an attempt to write for a broader audience, while still being philosophical.]

Why should we eat local food?

To answer the question, we need to start by clarifying it. “Local” is tricky, so we’re going to come back to it. Let’s start with the “should.”

We sometimes use “should” to name an absolute requirement or prohibition — what philosophers call a “categorical imperative.” For example, you shouldn’t go around murdering people. Not “unless you really want to” or “except in special circumstances X, Y, and Z”; murder is simply — absolutely, or categorically — something you shouldn’t do. Other times, we use “should” to give practical advice: if I’m cold and want to warm up, I should go put on a sweater.

The “should” in the question “Why should we eat local food?” is somewhere between these extremes. It doesn’t strictly prohibit coffee and chocolate — especially coffee and chocolate, that’s sustainably grown by fairly-paid workers — and so it’s not an absolute, exceptionless, categorical rule.

But it’s also not merely a piece of practical advice. If you want to count all the grains of sand between Michigan City and Beverly Shores, in the practical advice sense you should use cardboard partitions to divide the beach into 3’ by 3’ squares. However, in another sense, you should not waste your time counting the grains of sand in the first place.

The “should” in “we should eat local food,” like the “should” in “you shouldn’t waste your time counting grains of sand,” isn’t advice about how to satisfy some desire you happen to have, however bizarre (or not) that desire might be. Instead, these two “shoulds” give advice about how to live a good, worthwhile, and fulfilling life. You shouldn’t count the grains of sand because it’s a waste of time: you have better, more worthwhile, more fulfilling things to do. And, similarly, we should eat local food because, generally speaking, it’s better, more worthwhile, and more fulfilling than the alternative.

Notice that we have part of the answer to our question already. But why is local food better, more worthwhile, and more fulfilling? To answer that, we need to clarify “local.”

“Local” might mean something like “within four hundred miles” or “a truck can deliver it the day after it’s picked.” Some large retail stores define “local” in this way. But it’s hard to see why local food, in this sense, is better than the alternative. From my apartment in South Bend, it’s an easy bike ride to monocultured corn fields that get sprayed with pesticides and herbicides every few weeks, or “barns” filled with hundreds of hogs. Meanwhile, somewhere in China (though fewer and fewer places each year), there’s a peasant farmer raising a diverse group of plants and animals, using methods that have kept her land healthy and productive for a few thousand years. It’s true that the peasant’s farm is more labor intensive, and getting her food to my plate involves some significant food miles. But “labor intensive” is a dysphemism (that’s the opposite of a euphemism) for “employed farmers,” and the ecological costs of shipping food across the ocean are actually quite a bit less than the ecological costs of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers — cargo ships and trains are pretty fuel-efficient.

By “local,” I mean something more like “knowing the people who grow and produce your food.” Local, in this personal sense, generally requires local in the geographical sense: it’s going to be difficult to know the people who grow your coffee if you’re in Indiana and they’re in Colombia. My co-op defines “local” in terms of a 60-mile radius around South Bend. While this sounds like a geographical definition, the idea is that a producer who’s less than 60 miles away can personally come to distribution on Wednesdays, which gives them a chance to meet consumers. The transfer of food from grower to consumer is face-to-face, and often at the same time there’s a transfer of gossip, local news, and updates on kids and family. It’s still an economic transaction, but it becomes more than this.

Local food, in this community sense, is better, more worthwhile, and more fulfilling than the alternative in at least three ways. First, if you personally know the people who grow and produce your food, you’re in a better position to trust them. Many of the labels you see at the supermarket, like “all natural,” are basically unregulated. Others, like “organic,” are regulated, but the regulations might not cover everything you’re concerned about. For example, organic regulation doesn’t cover animal welfare or working conditions. Second, the money you spend goes directly to the food producer, who in turn can use it to support other local businesses. Rather than being siphoned off to corporate headquarters, wherever they might be, your food dollars maintain the local economy. And third, especially when it involves many small-scale producers, a local food system tends to spread the wealth rather than concentrating it. All together, local food is good, worthwhile, and fulfilling because it helps support a good, worthwhile, and fulfilling local community.

Economist Hiroko Shimizu and geographer Pierre Desrochers have criticized local food, arguing that our current global food production and trade system is and will be much better at securing productivity, efficiency, and affordability than local food, and that these will be especially important when world population peaks at about ten billion or so later this century. In short, they argue, global food, not local food, will feed the world.

I agree that questions of productivity, efficiency, and feeding the world need to be asked and answered. But Shimizu and Desrochers’ mistakenly assume that they are the only relevant questions, or the most important questions. The most important question is: what makes life better, more worthwhile, and more fulfilling, for farmers and workers; plants, animals, and ecosystems; and consumers? If the answer is, living in a certain kind of social and biological community, and that community requires eating local food, then it seems we should be working to make local food systems more secure, efficient, and affordable, not maintaining a global food system that has certain virtues but profoundly lacks others.