(originally posted to Technoscience as if People Mattered April 17, 2016)

I’m pondering the ethics of the “Eat Local” movement. If I go to Florida, am I behaving ethically by eating food grown there? What if I eat New-York-grown food there? What if I bring New-York-grown food with me to Florida and share it with a friend? Am I the only one of the two of us that is behaving ethically in that scenario? Is the very fact of my traveling to Florida the unethical part? After all, it’s the travel that costs fossil fuel, one of the main issues eating local is supposed to address. I became concerned with food provenance first when I was dieting strictly and so depending on others for nutrition information and later as I began questioning how to eat meat ethically. “Eating local” is yet another means of contemplating our positions in a global food system and the limitations that they place on us.

Laura Reiley recently wrote a wonderful series in the Tampa Bay Times that largely sated my desire for a more complicated understanding of the topic. Though she writes specifically about the Florida food scene, it offers much to the rest of the country by providing an excellent case study of the contrasts between food providers’ claims and practices, and its discussion – by way of the interconnectedness of the food system – of the U.S. and global business practices. The series consists of two main pieces, the first investigating the veracity of “farm-to-table” or “locally-sourced” restaurants’ claims of their ingredients’ origins and the second investigating farmer’s market versions of those claims. (Two shorter pieces offer prescriptions for consumer action and detailed menu documentation.) In both cases, she uncovers a dramatic level of dishonesty and misrepresentation, though she makes a point to consistently avoid claiming this dishonesty is wholly intentional.

There is a remarkable discussion going on here without any explicit remark – both on Reiley’s part and the commenters responding – about the social construction of knowledge. Commenters often describe the problems Reiley documents or their own concerns about food with “You can’t know…” and others make reference to “the truth” or claim that it, too, is unknowable as if that is the end of any possible inquiry. The restaurateurs Reiley interviews so frequently were only able to tell us what they believed to be the facts about the food they use. Reiley depends on the existence of a verifiable, objective truth about food: overtly the objective truth about its origins, but perhaps more implicitly a knowable truth about its nutritional value (an unstable science to say the least) or even its moral value. Further, there is little effort expended to explicate the relative value of different pieces of knowledge. Is the truth of whether something is “fresh-picked” more or less relevant than that of being “lobster”? Though Reiley makes no such assertion, her informants move deftly around the ideas that “fresh-picked” and “local” are fluid notions, very different from the fact of being lobster, without ever saying so.

Besides truth, a number of subjects referenced story. In some cases, the speaker was condemning those who expect a story for their food, in others it was more an observation or even aspirational; those latter restaurateurs and farmers want to provide a story as part of providing food. An important question I can’t answer are why labor or agricultural practices are cast as a story when a doctor’s medical education and the calorie and protein content of our food aren’t.

In one of the shorter pieces of the series, Reiley does offer an excellent and thorough explanation of how to determine if your food was produced locally and whether you are really getting the product you believe you are, but after finishing the series, I was still left wondering how to more broadly address problems like how generally to eat and purchase ethically and how to fix a food system that allows this amount of dishonesty and misrepresentation. I have some suggestions to these ends.

  • Don’t expect so much conformity from businesses; they fill different niches, so they should be different. One of the main arguments for eating local as an ethical issue is that supporting local businesses makes the local economy thrive, and to do that, you have to have more realistic expectations of what you are able to purchase. (As Reiley says, “Eating locally means eating seasonally, which frequently means relying on a more limited repertoire.”) Besides adjusting expectations around the range of product available, we also need to let go of the expectation that a business can create a 100% replicable process for producing food. This contradicts the very nature of small, local agriculture. Crop yield is not consistent or perfectly predictable from day-to-day or week-to-week. This means the source for an ingredient can only be accurate most of the time, and it means prepared food won’t be identical to what you were served last time. Finally, remember that if you make your purchasing decisions solely on the basis of the vendors’ overt claims about food origins, you are punishing honest businesses that tell a complicated truth and incentivizing business practices like dishonesty and evasion.
  • Food is not simple; introduce some nuance to your food decisions. Whether you’re eating for specific nutritional purposes (such as addressing vitamin or mineral deficiencies, preventing or alleviating chronic disease, pursuing weight loss or gain, or avoiding allergens), ethical reasons, or the satisfaction of your and others’ palates, you can only partially do those things if all you’re reading is one label – especially a shiny, big, colorful one that was slapped on not to inform but to convince you to buy. If you are pursuing a particular aim with your food – and almost everyone is – the only way to assure that you have the information you need to do so is deep research, both the kind of research this author does by questioning the people she purchases food from and verifying those claims as well as reading deeply and critically about the current state of the relevant nutrition science and the economic, sociological, environmental, and ethical findings that help us to understand the best practices that allow the land, animals, workers, and ultimately whole community to thrive in the long term.
  • Stop looking to your food for moral virtuosity.  Eating local does not make you a better person, just as eating organic or eating healthy or eating “clean” (whatever that one is) do not. They might mean you are doing good in the world or that you are making your life better, but they aren’t reflections of your purity. With that in mind, the imperfect nature of your knowledge of food provenance becomes much easier to accept and work within. Given the complicated nature of my other caveats here, it may be tempting for some to throw up their hands, abandon nuance and complexity, and decide that relying on what appears to be an overly stringent mechanism is the only way to make decisions with the simplicity needed for something done on a routine basis. The problem is this is a superficial analysis of the situation. If you only eat food sourced from within 50-miles (far less than the 400-mile radius from the 2008 farm bill that Reiley mentions), you don’t resolve the problem of what it means to be “from” somewhere, you’ve only given yourself more headaches. Of course, if you believe virtuosity stems in part from how much you’ve suffered, headaches are what you’re after. I strongly encourage that you investigate the moralistic roots of that impulse if you find yourself having it.

As is often the case, my over-arching recommendation is to push back against a simplistic discourse, in this case “Eat Local!” As I suggested in the beginning, you must ask yourself whether eating local is really an ethical issue. Ultimately, this discourse depends heavily on the naturalization of social and political boundaries, on expectations about money conforming to those boundaries in the same ways people and physical objects do, and on a consumer-driven solution to a complicated set of concerns. I’m not opposed to decreasing our use of fossil fuels, building the local economy, or developing the sense of community and culture in my immediate region, but I am opposed to believing those are simple things that can be accomplished exclusively through the use of simple, consumption-based choices.