Another Rebuttal

September 18, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Michael Morowitz

In a recent article, David Tamarkin of TimeOut Chicago joins the ranks of pundits launching full-fledged attacks at the concept of eating locally. His hypothesis rests on a fallacy where he states that people who choose to eat locally “choose to eat locally for two main reasons”, economic and environmental. He then goes on to attempt to trash these two motivations.

I list five reasons on this site which include cultural reasons and simple taste as well. Eat Local Challenge links to ten reasons for eating local. On this site, I list my main reason for eating local as a pure love of “seasonality and small-batch, locally-produced foods”, a love I found through travel. By ignoring these primary motivations behind many locavores that I know, Tamarkin is guilty of two logical fallacies right off the bat: hasty generalization and cherry-picking.

First he re-hashes Will Wilkinson’s argument that we should first buy from the neediest if we are economically well-intentioned. Nichol’s farm doesn’t need my five bucks that I spent on tomatoes today. By Tamarkin’s logic, the Mexican farmers need it more so I should buy Mexican. How far does this logic extend? Clothing? Cars? The workers in the U.S. manufacturing industry get significantly better wages and benefits than Chinese workers. Should I turn all my buying power towards Chinese-made products to ensure they continue to receive their wages? Or is it more ethical for me to withhold my purchase and say that I do not support a corrupt system that profits on the backs of its impoverished workers? These decisions are not as simple as saying, “They’re poor over there. Buy from them first.” Just as Wilkinson (and Tamarkin) state, it’s very complicated. Ultimately, I think it’s simply foolish to suggest that we out-source our food supply on a moral basis.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the moral desire to support struggling farmers in other far-flung locales. Equally, there is nothing wrong with the moral desire to support your own local economy where your friends, family, and neighbors all live and work.

When it comes to economics, Tamarkin is appealing to emotion, effectively saying, “but what about the starving babies overseas?” This is not proof, but an appeal that doesn’t hold much water. I would still be interested in evidence that a percentage reduction in the import of Australian-grown oranges or Chilean-grown grapes would adversely affect the quality of life in those countries.

Secondly, Tamarkin attacks the environmental argument that locally-grown food does not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than imported food. He points to an oft-quoted study that shows efficiencies in New Zealand-grown lamb are greater than that grown in England, a large lamb importer. Perhaps this makes sense if the British chose lamb to replace lamb, or never decided to implement any efficiencies locally. All things being equal, it may make sense to keep importing lamb. But a local eater will tell you to substitute some of your lamb eating with something efficient and bountiful from your own backyard.

Finally, Tamarkin sets up a wild hypothetical as reason to question eating locally in Chicago:

A similar situation in Chicago might look like this: While a tomato that was organically grown on an Illinois farm has a low impact on the environment, an organically grown tomato raised in an Illinois greenhouse—like some of the tomatoes sold in June at the Wicker Park Farmers’ Market—can be deceiving. They may be locally grown, but that term fails to reveal they were grown in a heavily heated, gas-guzzling greenhouse.

I would like to know exactly which farms use gas-guzzling greenhouses. Even if he can come up with one, which I doubt he can, I would say that there are dozens and dozens who use nothing more than a heat-efficient, zero-energy hoop-house. The movement toward eating local goes beyond blindly choosing something with a “local” sticker on it, but getting to know your food and your farmer. Pointing out a pitfall doesn’t invalidate the path taken. Should a vegetarian give up their eating choice because it’s hard to tell which foods might have used chicken stock in a sauce? Or should they learn more about what they’re eating? I say the latter. Make informed choices.

The fact of the matter is, and I dare anyone to dispute this, that if I choose to bring home Michigan peaches and Wisconsin cheese and Illinois beer from the market, that food didn’t travel nearly as far as Chilean grapes, California cheese, and New York wine. If it travels less, it uses less fuel. Even if those Chilean grapes are efficiently shipped in large containers, they still have to be grown, harvested, shipped to port, shipped, brought from port to distribution, and stocked. My peaches have to do the same thing, except you can cut out the entire trans-oceanic shipping process. Even Wal-Mart has recognized the fuel and cost savings in sourcing their food closer to their stores.

Overall, Tamarkin’s attack borders on vitriolic at times, which is disappointing, painting locavores as selfish and lacking reason. Unfortunately his arguments are completely devoid of reason. To attack with such anger with hypotheicals and appeals to emotion is specious at best. His argument is flawed from the beginning by making a false statement about the motivations of locavores and he does a poor job of knocking down the motivations that he picked like ripe Michigan cherries.

Mr. Tamarkin, to use your words, this article was “completely ill-conceived”.