Food is a highly popular way many people practice their environmental commitments. When one looks closer, though, important questions arise. EcoTypes may help us appreciate, and deepen, the ideas that inform the food movement. Below you’ll find an overview suggesting theme relevance, sample related axes, and an opportunity to take sides on this topic.
It is difficult to envision a topic more intimately associated with individual persons, communities, regions, and the globe than food. Increasingly, environmentalism has taken on food as a key issue, and to many people what they do and don’t eat is central to their environmental practice.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is conflict and complexity over food: though some debates are less significant, other issues such as food security or global hunger remain increasingly serious. Maybe thinking of food in terms of broad EcoTypes themes can help us understand more deeply the differing ideas that inform these challenges. In this vein, the EcoTypes Place and Action themes are particularly salient.
In terms of Place, food can resonate with either its human or its nonhuman pole. On the human side, advances in agricultural productivity such as the Green Revolution suggest an approach to Place that prioritizes a crafted Aesthetics, anthropocentric Ethics, and hybrid Nature—and indeed, since we are talking about food for people, one would think that food always leans toward human Place. But strong support for movements such as organic agriculture and permaculture indicate not only a concern for the quality of food people eat, but the quality of ecosystems involved in, or connected to, food production.
Some of this tension is evident in the land sparing vs. sharing debate, where the former option allows for high-technology, intensive farming to feed people, thus freeing up more land for conservation, and the latter works to promote biodiversity on the same lands used for food production; in this debate, ironically, sparing habitat for conservation—furthering nonhuman Place—necessitates intensive agriculture elsewhere—a (very) human Place. It is evident from these examples that food intertwines the human and nonhuman poles of Place, though given the ultimate emphasis on human well-being, human Place is inescapable.
Perhaps an even bigger tension arises in the Action theme, where small Action approaches stressing individual-scale food choice—popular among many green-leaning households as they grow or purchase what they consider healthy, sustainable food—sound entirely incongruous with big Action, aiming to harness or transform large-scale agriculture. One such is the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a “…global partnership dedicated to fighting hunger, malnutrition, and poverty by supporting resilient and sustainable agriculture in developing countries that benefits and empowers poor and vulnerable smallholder farmers, particularly women.” To GAFSP, this admirable goal necessitates big, not small, Action.
And, of course, a great deal of the current food supply comes via globalized, commercial agriculture—a reality to which small Action is often pursued as an alternative. Can individuals transform global agriculture bit by bit?: this would exemplify incremental Change, one of the axes contributing to small Action. And given also the popularity, in the food context, of an emphasis on individual Social Scale, consensus Society (with all contributing via their individual food choices), and local Spatial Scale, the small Action pole seems predominant in how people approach food.
Different takes on environmental topics may reflect differing takes on more fundamental environmental ideas. Below are a few of the EcoTypes axes related to this topic; these and other axes contribute to the larger theme-based patterns summarized above.
Food relates in obvious ways to the EcoTypes Nature axis: think of labeling on breakfast cereal or a host of other products where “natural” is prominently featured. The problem, as many know, is that “natural foods” are ubiquitous but unregulated: so, what does nature/natural imply in this context? Arguably, the assumption is typically one of pure (vs. hybrid) Nature.
Google food and spirituality, and the results (167 million as of recent searches) will suggest that food is far more than material sustenance to many people. Yet the label on the back of packaged food is entirely limited to the latter, as are typical government nutrition guides. The EcoTypes Spirituality axis addresses the tension between these sacred vs. secular approaches.
Similar to the axes above, the Technology axis represents an important tension (summarized in the axis as phobic vs. philic) in how people approach food. Much like the Nature axis and its connection to an emphasis on food as pure, many people think of technology (e.g., use of genetically modified organisms) as an undesirable adulterant of food, something to be minimized; but, clearly, technology is central to food production, distribution, and preparation.
Take sides on this topic! It’s best if you are randomly assigned to a side, or pick a side you disagree with, as the point here is to try on a different approach than you may have, and to consider how differing takes on EcoTypes axes and themes may result in differing positions on environmental topics.
Following this tab are three positions—by no means comprehensive, but this gets us beyond the back-and-forth of a pro/con two-position debate. The first position is the default one, in some ways supporting what those interested in environmental issues have learned as the best way to approach this topic. Then there are two more positions that challenge this default position and/or each other. In each case you’ll find some details to get you started, and guidance on how each position may relate to EcoTypes axes and themes (do review the general material above, and feel free to explore other connections not noted here). The last tab lists all publications cited in the position summaries.
You could approach these three positions as a traditional debate, with each side attempting to win. Or, you could approach these three positions as starting points for environmental engagement around their creative tensions, hopefully to get to deeper, more meaningful, possibly complementary disagreement.
Have fun! Remember to fully try on your position, whether or not you personally agree with it. It is easy to say “Each has a point,” and indeed each position presented here is worth serious consideration. But as you’ll discover there are important differences, and you have the opportunity and responsibility to make up your own mind in light of these differences.
Position One: Let’s Grow/Buy Local
Your position advances the well-known argument among environmentalists that local-scale food production, distribution, and consumption is best. The reasoning seems intuitive, and you would best emphasize many of these points as well:
- Local-scale food involves less transportation, thus presumably reducing energy and greenhouse gas-based transportation fuels.
- Local-scale food can be delivered more quickly, hence harvested when it is fresher and more nutritious.
- Local-scale food production better connects people to farms (e.g. via CSAs), heightening awareness of where our food comes from.
(It is worth anticipating position two, which refutes in particular the first of these points.)
There is a wealth of literature, mostly popular books (e.g., Nabhan 2002) but some slightly more technical reports (Halweil 2002; Martinez et al. 2010), supporting or considering local-scale food. An increasing number of communities and states in the U.S. support local food. And there are many resources, such as a local foods wheel for select regions of the U.S. and even a mobile phone app dedicated to helping people find local food alternatives.
There are questions and a need for clarification on this position, which you should anticipate. One is: how local is local food? a quick Google search brings up a variety of definitions (cf. Feagan 2007 for one scholarly perspective). Another is: what is the evidence in favor of local food?: at least according to some assessments (e.g., Edwards-Jones et al. 2008; Coley et al. 2009), the food miles evidence is mixed.
It may be better, rather than marshal abundant evidence, to invoke the ideas underlying this position, especially small Action and its attendant axes of incremental Change, individual Social Scale, consensus Society, and (of course) local Spatial Scale; there is an argument to be made supporting each of these poles. These broad ideas could help bolster yours as not some marginal view, but in fact a highly popular position and set of ideas among people in the U.S.
Position Two: Global Agriculture is the Green Solution
This position is a direct refutation of position one, championing globalized commercial agriculture as not only more productive than local-scale agriculture, but in fact the more ecologically friendly solution. To advocates of this position, local-scale food is inefficient and in fact counterproductive from a green standpoint.
How could this be?, you may ask. One well-known example involved New Zealand apples (Saunders et al. 2006), part of a larger conversation about fruit production and sustainability (Granatstein 2007). In brief, it has been argued that a U.K. consumer concerned about their ecological footprint should in fact purchase New Zealand apples and not those grown in their own country, as the overall amount of energy (and thus carbon) per apple would be less. This position has in general been validated by research (e.g., Coley et al. 2009), which typically advocates the greater economic efficiencies (related to production/transportation storage energy, land productivity, etc.) of a more trade-based approach to food supply (e.g., Sexton 2011).
Many people justify their leanings toward local food based on a suspicion of the practices of commercial agriculture, such as (in some crops) genetic engineering. But a Pew Research study of popular U.S. attitudes has indicated that these views are not always in accord with those of scientists (Pew Research 2015). In general, then, you could argue that what seems obvious to many of us—e.g., that consuming local food reduces our ecological footprint—may actually fly in the face of scientific evidence.
One critic of locavorism is Pierra Descorchers (2012). In a post, Desrochers attacks what he considers social, economic, environmental, security, and taste and health myths, ultimately arguing that
Far from being an innovative step forward that would take us back to the “good old days,” locavorism is but a new spin on the rhetoric for agricultural protectionism. As such, it can only deliver the trying times our ancestors left behind and which today’s subsistence farmers would gladly escape if given opportunities to trade. The problem of our current agricultural system is not that it is too globalized, but that it is not globalized enough.
This post seems to validate position two’s support for the big Action theme, and you may wish to briefly review the Action theme and its contributing axes, especially institutional Social Scale and global Spatial Scale. The Change and Society axes contributing to the Action theme initially seem less applicable to your position, but only if radical Change and conflict Society are understood as anti-globalist; perhaps there may be room to argue that these poles can also support big Action in the form of global agriculture, albeit flowing from a slightly different political mix. This ambivalence of your position within the Action theme could be a limitation, and indeed some scholarly summaries of large-scale agriculture (e.g., Busch and Bain 2004; Scrinis 2007) suggest its contradictions, which you should be prepared to downplay or refute.
Perhaps the most direct way to approach big Action is via global Spatial Scale, and indeed a range of moral arguments, from philosopher Peter Singer’s longstanding advocacy of global over local concern (Singer 1972; see also The Life That You Can Save) to those supporting cosmopolitanism and its attendant global sense of place (e.g., Massey 1991; Beck 2006), could suggest that position one’s focus on the local may not only be empirically questionable, but may need to be rethought on moral grounds given its limited spatial scope.
Position Three: Watch Out for Lifestyle Environmentalism
The third position is a different refutation of position one, to the extent that locavores make food a major area of their environmental practice. According to position three, many environmentalists are way too obsessed with their food choices, and should be wary of locavore discourse turning the movement into lifestyle environmentalism.
What is lifestyle environmentalism? The phrase refers to an approach that prioritizes lifestyle choice—what you eat, how you approach health, where you shop, what you buy, what you wear, how you deal with waste, how you get from place to place, etc.—as definitional of environmental practice. Whether described as green consumption, sustainable living, or otherwise, it is not hard to find critiques of this largely small Action approach (e.g., here, here, or here). Compared to position two, position three’s critique of small Action is more politically attuned, where not only individual Social Scale and local Spatial Scale but certainly also incremental Change and consensus Society are called into question.
There is an abundant scholarly literature supporting position three. One scholar, Julie Guthman, has written a great deal on the topic of food that is critical of environmentalist tendencies toward lifestyle (for accessible summaries see Guthman 2003; 2004; 2007a, b). Guthman generally argues that there are material realities, conflicts, and conundrums a close examination of food systems reveals which are unnoticed or obscured in the the common lifestyle approach to food, often championed or implicitly supported by popular writers such as Michael Pollan (2006). Others take on popular dimensions of food-based lifestyle environmentalism, including the politics of localism (DePuis and Goodman 2005) and of urban farming (Saed 2012), the avoidance of race (Slocum 2011), implications for broader patterns of human-plant relations (Head and Atchison 2009) and romanticization of the past via agrarian spirituality (Gould 2005), even the supposed evils of grains and gluten (Laudan 2018).
What, then, does your position advocate as a replacement for lifestyle environmentalism? Perhaps, in a larger sense, this position resonates with a political ecology challenge of neoliberalism, which ironically advocates of position three may find evident not only in position one—the liberalism (as in individual choice) of neoliberalism—but also in position two—the globalism of neoliberalism. If so, you should stress important dimensions of power neglected in lifestyle environmentalism (and its globalist alternative), and the resultant ambiguities as power plays out in food systems in ways that both challenge more simple, lifestyle based solutions, and caution us that all solutions will involve tradeoffs (e.g., Guthman 2018).
So, your position three cannot readily be reduced to a slogan—though, in many ways, its very strength lies in challenging the slogans that often dominate food-based environmental movements. Assuming that lifestyle environmentalism is a pervasive problem, the critique offered by position three is, then, sorely needed.
As noted in the comprehensive bibliography here, all EcoTypes references are stored in a group Zotero library. Those below are the ones cited on this page.