Global Ethics Corner: Is Local Food More Ethical?

Oct 1, 2012

With real economic benefits and perceived environmental ones, local food has been branded as an ethical alternative to the mass-produced variety. But critics point out that locavores may be forgetting crucial points about climate change and global poverty. Is local food really more moral?

Food matters. It impacts your health, your finances, the environment, and even politics. This is why many people are turning away from large-scale agribusiness and going local.

Like organic food, small-scale, local food has been branded as the ethical alternative to mass-produced food. Known as locavores, local food enthusiasts insist that it's not only better tasting and more nutritious, but also more moral. But is locally grown food really more ethical? A growing number of scientists have their doubts.

Scientists' first concern lies in local foods' alleged environmental benefits. A major part of the pro-locavore argument rests in the environmental costs of transporting industrial foods. Most foods spend days traveling from farm to fork. Because local foods travel a much shorter distance, locavores say they have a smaller carbon footprint.

But scientists argue that transportation is just one small part of food's environmental impact. More important is how food is grown and processed. Because they operate on a smaller scale, local farms are actually less efficient than large-scale farms. This means they spend more energy producing less food, and that is bad for the environment.

However, the ethics of "going local" extend beyond climate change. Studies show that money spent locally can double the income of local economies. Buying local is also more personal. Direct interactions between food producers and consumers can help communities develop a shared sense of responsibility. Yet advocates of fair trade argue that our responsibilities extend beyond our neighbors. Going local means less business for farmers in poor countries and ultimately widens the global poverty gap.

Against a backdrop of globalization and climate change, what ethical tradeoffs do you see for the local food movement?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

John Cloud, "Eating Better Than Organic," Time, March 2, 2007

Adam Dean, "Local Produce vs. Global Trade," Policy Innovations, October 25, 2008

Andrew Martin, "If It’s Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener?" The New York Times, December 9, 2007

Stephanie J. Dubner, "You Eat What You Are, Pt. 2: Full Transcript," Freakonomics, June 6, 2012

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Wally Hartshorn Scott Drzyzga Walmart Wil Stuckey ad454 Ian MacKenzie International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Ed Schipul Dean Gugler Jonathon Colman International Center for Tropical Agriculture Andrew Stawarz Scallop Holden Rainforest Action Network Steve Garfield Shira Golding Gates Foundation United Nations Photo Oxfam International

You may also like

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken &  Vice President Joe Biden in Honolulu, July 2016. CREDIT: <a href="">Staff Sgt. Chris Hubenthal/U.S.Department of Defense</a>/<a href="">Public Domain</a>

NOV 23, 2020 Article

Competing Ethics in the Biden Administration?

In this blog post responding to Thomas Wright's recent article in "The Atlantic," Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev outlines the three different "camps" vying for influence ...

CREDIT: <a href="">pxhere/Public Domain</a>

NOV 13, 2019 Podcast

AI in the Arctic: Future Opportunities & Ethical Concerns, with Fritz Allhoff

How can artificial intelligence improve food security, medicine, and infrastructure in Arctic communities? What are some logistical, ethical, and governance challenges? Western Michigan's Professor Fritz ...

Abaiang Island Council's Mayor Ngalueng K. Iatakee shows how Kiribati's landscape is changing due to climate change. <br>CREDIT: <a href="">Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (CC)</a>.

SEP 26, 2019 Podcast

Climate Change Law, Island Nations, & the UN, with Maxine Burkett

University of Hawaii's Professor Maxine Burkett discusses climate change from a legal perspective in this timely conversation. What are some strategies that island nations like ...