Ethical-food movement: Heroes or just a bunch of selfish Antagonists?

Whether we are meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans etc., a big number of us have started to care more about where our food comes from lately. We may care about the ways in which the food we eat has been produced for personal reasons such as: assuring the food we eat is nutritious or for collective ones, in which case we make food choices that are environment-friendly when it comes to the way they have been produced.

First of, what is the “Local food movement”?  Feenstra, G., (2002) defines local food as a “collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies – one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place.”

The aims of  local food movement are encouraged to be pursued for Ethical reasons. We might as well call it the “Ethical food movement” in this case. One of the reasons why people support such a movement is for a better health. Wrong or not, it is assumed that in most of the cases, local food is also organic, or at least it is wanted to be produced with natural fertilisers and less to none pesticides in which case the vegetables and fruits produced this way will not only be more nutritious, but also more environmentally-friendly. Therefore, it is not all about health only, but also about saving the environment. So far it sounds like a great cause to me so why not calling these people “Heroes”? Or… Are they really? It all sounds great in theory, but scientists might have rained on our parade again.  Against all odds, their argument is that the “locavores” (people who choose to buy locally) are actually doing more harm to the Planet than they might think. How come?

Some of the arguments in favour of buying locally refer to the costs of transporting industrial foods. Most foods require a big number of days to be transported from the farms where they’re produced to supermarkets, or even further, to our plates so less travelling around, less combustible, cheaper prices one would say.  Does cheaper mean more environment-friendly though?  Travelling on long distance automatically leads us into thinking the overall carbon foot print is bigger than in the case of locally produced foods. Indeed, if we were to look at it only from the angle of transportation methods, we’d probably say the carbon footprint is significantly smaller. That would sound legit if we compared the difference in length, wouldn’t it?

Although we may consider it a valid argument, scientists Webber and Matthews (2008) compared the two sources of food strictly from the production angle and the uses of greenhouses when it comes to the locally produced foods. Apart from the consumption of energy for heating purposes, what they emphasized was the impact local food productions have on climate change by measuring the carbon footprint for each instance.

What happens is that, of course, during the cold season especially, the use of greenhouses is needed. It is either this or the seasonal fruits and veggies need to be imported from warmer countries where the weather temperature enables farming under normal conditions. Here’s a quote from their study: ”We find that although food is transported long distances in general (1640 km delivery and 6760 km life-cycle supply chain on average) the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by the production phase, contributing 83% of the average U.S. household’s 8.1 t CO2e/yr footprint for food consumption. Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%.”

The rationale behind the above stated refers to the implications of greenhouses use and the subsequent GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions that lead to an accelerated global warming, precisely CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) emissions. According to the WMO (World Meteorological Organization), the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011. Also, there was “a 30% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping long-lived gases in the last two decades” (WMO Bulletin, 2012).

Taking into account the findings regarding GHG, although people support food movements as a way to save the environment from pollution, it looks now that they might actually do the opposite. Therefore, since there is a big chance for local farming to affect the environment even more than importing would, which one would be ethically correct to choose? Looking at what scientists say and assuming you are one of those who choose their food to be locally sourced for the ethical reasons presented in the beginning of this entry, do you feel less than a “hero” now?

It is also interesting to consider the conflict between the two following interests:

  1. the interest of the consumer who aims for good quality (fresh) food- the locally sourced one (assuming most of it is organic);
  2. the interest of an environmental activist who would rather consume large scale produced/ imported food with less nutritious traits (travelling reduces their freshness etc) than eating locally sourced one and thus consciously contributing to global warming.

So the biggest question remains: What happens when you have both the interests? Pursuing which of the two interests would count as making an Ethical decision?

by Diana Mitra-A.

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