The reach of love
In your book you say that socially responsible folks in San Francisco would do better to buy their rice from Bangladesh than from local growers in California. Could you explain?
This is in reference to the local food movement, and the idea that you can save fossil fuels by not transporting food long distances. This is a widespread belief, and of course it has some basis. Other things being equal, if your food is grown locally, you will save on fossil fuels. But other things are often not equal. California rice is produced using artificial irrigation and fertilizer that involves energy use. Bangladeshi rice takes advantage of the natural flooding of the rivers and doesn’t require artificial irrigation. It also doesn’t involve as much synthetic fertilizer because the rivers wash down nutrients, so it’s significantly less energy intensive to produce. Now, it’s then shipped across the world, but shipping is an extremely fuel-efficient form of transport. You can ship something 10,000 miles for the same amount of fuel necessary to truck it 1,000 miles. So if you’re getting your rice shipped to San Francisco from Bangladesh, fewer fossil fuels were used to get it there than if you bought it in California.
In the same vein, you argue that in the interests of alleviating world poverty, it’s better to buy food from Kenya than to buy locally, even if the Kenyan farmer only gets 2 cents on the dollar.
My argument is that we should not necessarily buy locally, because if we do, we cut out the opportunity for the poorest countries to trade with us, and agriculture is one of the things they can do, and which can help them develop. The objection to this, which I quote from Brian Halweil, one of the leading advocates of the local movement, is that very little of the money actually gets back to the Kenyan farmer. But my calculations show that even if as little as 2 cents on the dollar gets back to the Kenyan farmer, that could make a bigger difference to the Kenyan grower than an entire dollar would to a local grower. It’s the law of diminishing marginal utility. If you are only earning $300, 2 cents can make a bigger difference to you than a dollar can make to the person earning $30,000.
It’s an interesting argument, and one that makes a fair amount of sense. (I give the majority of my charitable donations to international aid organizations on the similar grounds that the same amount of money goes a lot further in third world countries.)
What Singer misses is the what Wendell Berry describes as "the power of affection." Singer is famous for taking utilitarianism to its logical ends — holding that if you have the power to save two lives on the other side of the earth, but it would kill your child, you have the moral obligation to do so, because two lives are more important than one. Only slightly less dramatically, he argues that it is immoral for any of us to enjoy the typical American (or European) standard of living while children are dying for want of medicines that cost pennies. (The Salon article notes that Singer gives 20% of his salary to charity, which is far more than most of us, but still way short of the moral standard that he upholds.)
Berry’s response is that it’s fundamentally inhuman to expect us to value strangers’ lives as much as our children’s, to expect us to care as much about pollution someplace that’s a dot in the map as much as pollution in the pond down the road. In his list of 27 propositions about sustainability, he argues against cities and globalization because:
"XX. The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the
reach of one’s love for the place one is working in, and for the things and
creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results.
An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of
I’m not willing to go as far as Berry. But I do think that the challenge for our time is that if we’re going to live in a world of globalization, we need to extend the reach of our love.
So where does this leave us on food? Singer actually has a lot in common with the local foods movement. He offers a different general guideline:
"Avoid factory farm products. The worst of all the things we talk about in the book is intensive animal agriculture. If you can be vegetarian or vegan that’s ideal. If you can buy organic and vegan that’s better still, and organic and fair trade and vegan, better still, but if that gets too difficult or too complicated, just ask yourself, Does this product come from intensive animal agriculture? If it does, avoid it, and then you will have achieved 80 percent of the good that you would have achieved if you followed every suggestion in the book. "
Plus, this way, you get to keep drinking coffee.