The Regionalist: Is “local” commerce morally defensible?

A screenshot of Équiterre's home page advertising "local consumption"

I argued in a recent post that regionalism is not an ideology (in the sense of an all-encompassing worldview) but rather an ethical stance which recognizes the importance of regions as biological and social entities. Does it necessarily follow that localism is also “ethical” and therefore morally defensible? More specifically, one might ask: is it possible to formulate a moral argument in favor of local commerce based on similar premises/arguments?

I bring this up because the question was recently posed (indirectly) by Chris MacDonald (@ethicsblogger) on Twitter: “If I’m supposed to support my local economy, how local should I aim for? My nation? My province or state? My town? My own home?”. I answered the following, in 140 characters: “Local is only a proxy for “being part of a feedback loop from producer to consumer”. Doesn’t have to be geographical.” To which he answered back: “Can you send a link to explain that further?”.

Here, then, is my explanation, which is connected to the theme of this column: I interpreted his questioning of “local” (used as a criterion for deciding what to buy) as a challenge to the ethical (and therefore moral) basis of localism, which made me realize that local is indeed an ambiguous signifier (e.g., Is it still considered “local” commerce if in Montreal you buy something made/produced in Ontario? How about something produced in Vermont, closer to Montreal but in a different country?). If we cannot define the concept that serves as our criterion, we are in trouble. There is, of course, the “100-miles diet” and other such guidelines, but the fact remains that in common parlance “buying local” means many different things.

Having come to the conclusion that “local” can hardly serve as a criterion for deciding whether this product is “better” than that one, I pondered whether local might stand for some other thing which can be specified more clearly – and which is itself valuable or desirable. The answer I have come to is: yes, “local” can be thought of as a proxy for how closely connected we are to the people (and other entities, such as ecosystems) affected by our consumption of a particular good. In turn, being connected through a feedback loop to those affected by our consumption means that we are better informed about its impacts – and more likely to adjust it accordingly. And it goes without saying that a system that is able to learn about and “update” itself is more adaptive and resilient.

A good example of such a “feedback loop” is that which was created by the community-sustained agriculture (CSA) movement in North America (coordinated by Équiterre in the Montreal region). CSA allows the consumer to come in direct contact with the person – and more often than not, the family – that produces what he/she eats. Typically farmer and consumer share the risk: if for whatever the reason the harvest is less generous one year, then the consumer who is a “partner” or “member” of the farm receives produce in lesser quantity (note that the opposite is also true). Even outside of CSA, farmers’ markets (at least those where farmers actually sell their own produce) make it possible for consumers to learn about they eat from those who produce their food, and for farmers to learn about how people eat, what they like, etc.

Does this “feedback loop” have to be “local” in the geographical sense? I think not. Fair-trade cooperatives (e.g., La Siembra, based in Ottawa) can play a similar role as the CSA network in connecting producers in developing countries with consumers in developed countries. Therefore, if we broaden the scope of “local” and define it as that which can be perceived from one’s position, then local commerce can indeed be thought of as “ethical”.

That is not to say that local consumption/commerce is always more “sustainable” – we know for example that vegetables produced locally out-of-season in heated greenhouses require far more energy that the same vegetables produced thousands of kilometers away, even when accounting for transportation (happy to provide refs if anyone’s interested). What local commerce does, however, is open up possibilities for ethical consumption.

In conclusion: “local” is the finger, connectedness is the moon. I say to @ethicsblogger: don’t look at the finger, look at the moon.

5 comments

  1. Joel:

    Thanks for taking the time to give such a thoughtful answer. And your answer makes a lot of sense to me. Two points I’d want to make in reply.

    1) On this view, it looks like “know your food” should be the slogan, rather than “buy local.”

    2) Your view gives a very particular spin on the “buy local” movement(s). There are many reasons given for buying local. You focus on just one of them — which is fine, because I think yours is the most defensible. But it’s worth recognizing that this puts you in a different camp from the folks who think you should “buy local” in order to support your local community, or reduce food-miles, etc etc.

    Chris.

  2. “we know for example that vegetables produced locally out-of-season in heated greenhouses require far more energy that the same vegetables produced thousands of kilometers away, even when accounting for transportation (happy to provide refs if anyone’s interested).”

    Yes please.

    Also, instead of comparing based on energy, I’d be interested in a comparison based on GHG emissions. ex: veggies grown in a fossil-fuel powered, heavily irrigated desert, vs grown by hydro-powered Quebec greenhouses. Cheers.

  3. @Chris
    Quebecers should get off their high horse because of the hydro damns. CHG emissions are a global phenomenon; so is energy consumption – and electricity does travel and can be sold South of the border so pretending it’s better to waster energy here rather than South of the border doesn’t really make sense.

  4. Joel –

    Thanks for writing this. Even for those uninterested in questions of sustainable agriculture this serves as a lesson in argumentation. I hope you turn your gimlet eye to other hot-button issues so that we can continue to direct our passions wisely!

    Though I think this goes a long way toward changing the way we think about our devotion to eating local, there remains the issue of our more animal instincts. Right now, buying sustainably almost necessarily means spending more money. And though we may have noble aims – some of which Chris MacDonald points to above – I’m sure the sense of satisfaction/pride/righteousness we receive when making these choices motivates us at least as much. And those feelings are likely stimulated more when we have face-to-face interaction, which is why CSA’s and farmer’s markets beat out Central American coffee farmers and New Zealand sheep farms. I’m sure our elevated thoughts about supporting the local economy aren’t untainted by some baser urges of blood-ties and sticking with the familiar. 

    Laying bare our assumptions as you do here is one major step forward – but finding ways to recreate the personal/emotional benefits of buying local when shopping over long distances is likely needed as well. 

  5. Hi Chris,

    Perhaps the two most pertinent articles on the subject are:

    1) Thibert, J. and Badami M.G. 2011. Estimating and communicating food system impacts: A case study in Montreal, Quebec. Ecological Economics. Volume 70 (10) 1814-1821.

    2) Carlsson-Kanyama et al. 2003. Food and life cycle energy inputs: consequences of diet and ways to increase efficiency. Ecological Economics 44 (2-3) 293-307.

    I authored the first article with Madhav Badami at McGill and we looked specifically at the ecological impacts of “local diets”, comparing locally-produced ingredients vs. imported ingredients in and out of season, using both ecological footprinting (which is basically a carbon footprint measure) and energy accounting. Both measures yield the same result: out of season ingredients imported from California or Mexico have both a lower footprint and a lower embodied energy (the two measures are highly correlated). Note that in the energy accounting we calculated the energy cost of irrigation and took into account the carbon emissions associated with different kinds of energy (hydro vs. thermal vs. fossil fuel in vehicles, etc.).

    The second article is a little bit more dated but more much comprehensive – it lists about 100 food products and compares the local and imported alternatives in Sweden. The conclusions are the same. For example: the difference in energy between a locally-grown tomato and a tomato imported from Italy is enormous: the locally-grown grown greenhouse tomato has approximately 10X more embodied energy than its Italian counterpart (and Sweden also uses hydro and nuclear energy).

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