The well-intentioned, politically progressive and completely ill-conceived localvore movement

Why we should think twice before drinking the Kool-Aid.

Illustration: Caitlin Kuhwald

Spurred by last year’s successful event of the same name, Green City Market is now in the midst of its second Localvore Challenge—a call to Chicagoans to give up their Belgian chocolate habit, step away from those Florida oranges and, for 14 days straight, eat only foods produced in Illinois, its border states and Michigan. The theory is if you can do it for two weeks, you might be able to do it year-round, at which point you won’t merely be trying on the localvore badge for size—you’ll have blossomed into a bona fide, full-fledged localvore-for-life.

People who become localvores—whether for two weeks or 200—are likely well-intentioned, considerate citizens of the Earth. They choose to eat locally for two main reasons: (1) They believe it’s better for the local economy—the money spent on local food ostensibly goes to local farmers, thereby helping those farmers thrive and keeping the area flush with crops and money; and (2) They believe eating locally is better for the environment (in theory, local foods eliminate the need for long, gas-guzzling deliveries and high-emission plane rides). In short, localvores make sacrifices, severely limiting what they eat for the benefit of the land and the people around them.

At least, that’s the idea. But wholly swallowing these claims requires a certain amount of wishful thinking. Or if not wishful, then at least limited. Because to remain content with a localvore lifestyle and its supposed benefits requires abandoning the reasoning behind the movement before it reaches its logical conclusion. The more you think about that reasoning, the more the localvore argument begins to crack. Think about it too long and it almost crumbles.

The localvore lifestyle is, by design, a myopic one. It ignores the rest of the world and focuses on what’s good in one’s backyard. This thinking, of course, ignores the fact that somebody else’s backyard might be more needy than our own. If the first goal of buying local produce is to help farmers in need, it would stand to reason that localvores should seek out the neediest farmers they can. If they did, they would not find them in an incredibly wealthy nation like ours. As philosopher Peter Singer and cowriter Jim Mason write in The Ethics of What We Eat (Rodale, $15.95), the profits a farmer in a developing country earns from selling his wares in America—even if it’s as little as two cents—will go further toward helping that farmer combat poverty than those profits would for a Midwestern farmer. “A decision to buy locally produced food,” Singer and Mason write, “is a decision not to buy food from countries that are significantly worse off than our own.”

This is not to say eating local is the wrong choice—it’s eating exclusively local that is flawed. To forgo fairly traded imports like tea, coffee, chocolate and bananas in the name of more responsible spending seems counterproductive at best. At worst, it seems carelessly self-centered.

The argument for taking the Localvore Challenge, then, is reduced to the environmental one. But here, too, the concept has its flaws. Judging the environmental impact of a food is not as simple as deducing where it came from; how the food was raised and transported also must be considered. Local foods that are raised in environmentally unfriendly ways are sometimes more detrimental to the earth than nonlocal foods that have been raised responsibly. Studies at Lincoln University in New Zealand show that the way apples, lamb and dairy items are produced in New Zealand makes them more energy-efficient to buy in the U.K. than those same products grown on British soil. 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.

With such uncomfortable flaws cropping up, it’s easy to see why localvores wouldn’t want to think too much about their lifestyle. Doing so only sheds light on an increasingly depressing situation. There is light on the horizon, however: Some localvores address these issues through their “exemptions”—foreign foods that they, for one reason or another, can’t live without. The exemption policy was designed to address severe caffeine addictions more than poverty in developing nations, but there’s no reason it can’t address both. Of course, the more exemptions localvores make, the less of a localvore they become; instead, they’re simply people who choose to eat locally whenever it’s appropriate. That doesn’t have the same ring as localvore, but it is perhaps the best solution to the very complicated problem of eating. In other words, the quick, easy way to eat responsibly is to realize that a quick, easy way does not exist. We rush to embrace the “eat local” mantra with the same vigor with which we grasp onto fad diets. But like those diets, this overly simple, alarmingly quick fix will serve only to confuse us, mislead us and leave us starving for something more substantial.

Find strategies for eating smarter locally at timeoutchicago.com/blog. Read about our efforts to be a localvore last year.

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