The reach of love

In her comment on Monday’s Eat Local post, Mary from Stone Court pointed me to this Salon interview with Peter Singer, in which he is critical of the local foods movement.

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.

9 Responses to “The reach of love”

  1. Moxie Says:

    And eating chocolate. You forgot fair-trade chocolate.
    Thanks for this.

  2. Julie Says:

    I wholeheartedly support not buying from factory farms. However, as the 8th generation of an American farm family (and one who obviously does not farm because I’d be out working my a** off already this morning if I did), I can tell you that the situation for non-factory-farm raised products is very, very dire in this country.

  3. amy Says:

    From what our co-op says, it’s getting worse with Wal-Mart’s entry into organic food. We’ve been very fortunate around here, with many high-quality small organic family farms — veg, grain, meat, dairy, poultry, herbs/flowers. (The meats make me grateful I already did time as a vegetarian. Wow.) But they’ve relied heavily on the co-ops to buy, and even though they’ve begun moving back to an old model of selling retail through farm shares or subscriptions,I don’t know that the retail market can sustain them. If the co-ops lose significant market to Wal-Mart, I guess these small farms will see real trouble.
    The thing is it’s very hard to ignore the prices, and even crunchy people are susceptible to marketing. I’ve watched Wal-Mart’s advertising to the Target crowd, and I think it could probably make a successful pitch to organic shoppers if it hippified its organic groc sections and put in better lighting. Around here people are close enough to farming and farms that I think they will still look critically at produce, but if Wal-Mart could cut the prices by a quarter or a third, I don’t know if that’d stop the flow of customers.
    The main thing I see in favor of real, local organic food here is that we have people willing to drop ungodly amounts on groceries and gourmet items. $500 weekly shopping trips, that kind of thing. So for them, I don’t think the price points are that big a deal. There’s also a smaller, lower-income, green crowd that is aware of the fights over the definition of “organic”, and is mistrustful of anything they don’t know to be bona-fide.

  4. amy Says:

    I think Berry makes the case strongest & most beautifully in an old favorite of mine, _The Memory of Old Jack_. Which I think I should read again now.
    I think there’s really something to what he says, not least that if you are involved locally — for instance, in a local high school’s organic farm — you have an understanding of not only where your food comes from & what it is, but what the culture is that’s grown it, what farms are, and a sense that questions of respect, cooperation, use, theft, and knowing come up in our relationship with the earth as surely as they do among people.
    I think where Berry is prisoner of another time is in his talk about caring where pollution is. Human social cultures are, I think, still local. But it seems to me that modern ecology teaches that there is no ecological local, that you may as well say you’re more attached to your elbow than to your toe. I don’t know what Berry would have to say about that, though. Maybe I should go read one of the six unread essay books of his I have. Somehow I like his fiction better.
    Huh. And in a side note, I just got a recorded call from Wesley Clark’s outfit, saying he’s going to be in Cedar Rapids for a pork roast. No mention of any candidates. Wonder if he means to be one.

  5. Devra Says:

    First my confession…I had to re-read the article twice because I thought you were writing about Pete Seeger and got confused. That’s what I get for reading too fast!
    Pork roast in Cedar Rapids? Are their any Jewish voters in Cedar Rapids?

  6. MaryGarth Says:

    Hi–I’m glad you decided to follow up on this and very interested in your response and everyone’s comments.
    I have also struggled with the “proximity/affection/help-take-care of-the-messes-in-front-of-you” vs. “it doesn’t/shouldn’t matter where the need is/give or help where your help can go farthest or where the need is greatest” issues–and sometimes ended up arguing on either side, depending on the particular issues.
    There seem to be icky extremes out there in both directions–people who are proud sponsors of a baby on the other side of the world through Save the Children but seem incapable of extending any sympathy to women struggling to make it on welfare in their own communities, and people who are doing a tremendous amount at the local, personal, individual level to help people they know (often through private or church organizations) but don’t/can’t see or act to do something about the institutional, structural & political factors that lead those people to need help [note: I recognize these two things are not parallel opposites].
    Coming back to food (rather than the more general where/how can/should we do good), because it’s the easiest thing for us to do since we have a local happy-animal, grass-fed farm that we can buy from, I was glad that he concluded that skipping the factory-farmed animal products was the most important thing… But I recognize what a luxury this is.
    I know there are all sorts of problems with Wal-Mart, but it also seems as if the company’s not going away any time soon. We may not _like_ the market power they have, but if they were to use that market power to put pressure on the producers to change their practices (or increase the market for “happy” animal products while (ideally) making them more available to people with moderate incomes), wouldn’t that be a good thing? Feel free to argue why it wouldn’t, by the way (e.g., driving coops out of business, etc.)–I’m not convinced of this myself. More ideally, we’d have a government that actually regulated the industry more strongly and required humane treatment.

  7. amy Says:

    Mary, if the producers Wal-Mart bought from were likely to be real, careful, organic farmers, I’d agree. Unfortunately, USDA’s made it possible to be something rather different and still label your products “organic”, “natural”, etc. And then there’s the question of what constitutes organic & natural from other countries. I would not expect Wal-Mart to be a big buyer from the small farmers we get our (relatively expensive) food from now.
    Devra, there’s only a community college in Cedar Rapids. Of course there’s no Jewish voters. Joking, mostly. Afaik, the CR shul (Reform only) has about 100 families. =) That leaves over 100,000 pork-eating Iowan voters, so we’re not what you’d call a bloc.
    I eat ham despite my conditioning, because a) it’s tasty; and b) when it comes down to it treyf is treyf and I think the Horror of the Cloven Hoof is a little overdone, but I can’t eat pork or sausage. Biked past pigs too many times. The meat, to my taste, carries the stench. Don’t know why it’s different with ham, maybe it’s the metric tons of salt.
    Now I can never run for office in Iowa.

  8. SamChevre Says:

    On the Wal-mart selling organic food issue–I would agree with Berry and Salatin that it is local and sustainable, not organic, that should be key if the goal is to better the world. It is perfectly possible to grow organic lettuce in California, irrigating the desert to grow it and hiring migrant labor to pick it, and ship it to Virginia and sell it at Wal-Mart (or Whoel Foods). The impact on communities and on the environment will be very similar to non-organic lettuce from the same geography. On the other hand, if you buy lettuce from a local farmer who takes good care of his land and works on the farm himself, but does not farm organically (and that is very possible), you support your local community, your local environment, and greatly reduce the environmental impact of your food consumption.

  9. MaryGarth Says:

    I’m very sympathetic to the idea of going locally-grown. Of course the lettuce example brings us back to the issue of what grows where and when. Most of us would have to change our diets pretty substantially to live on what was grown locally on a year-round basis–here it would be something like plenty of lettuce in late spring and early summer, peas and beans early to mid-summer, tomatoes and corn late summer [I have to stop–I’m making my mouth water thinking about summer tomatoes…]–and whatever turnips, cabbages, brussels sprouts, etc. you could get in the fall to last through the winter months. Of course we could all go back to canning and/or freezing more of our own stuff to preserve the locally-grown produce, but at some point the time investment becomes daunting. I know this is how people used to live, and it may have many things in its favor. But 5 months of brussels sprouts is a lot.

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