Eating Vegan and Locally – the ethical debate

“Is it more ethical and sustainable to eat a vegan diet which relies on the oil industry or a vegetarian diet with small amounts of eggs and dairy products from locally produced organic sources where one can make a relationship with the creatures? Do you disagree that a balanced vegan diet relies on imported food and that I am just creating problems for myself?”

(Taken from the Meat Eaters, Vegetarians and Vegans Ethical Debate on The Druid Network’s Ethics Pages Here)

Some very good questions were raised during this ethical debate, which I have been pondering ever since I went vegan. With the world’s dwindling oil supplies and the other costs to food travel – ie. carbon emissions, it has played largely upon my mind. Is it more ethical for me personally to eat lentils and quinoa grown in a country far away and imported at the expense of the environment (and other factors) than it is to try and eat vegan locally? Is such a thing even possible where I live?

I live in a very small village. We do have a village shop, which stocks the basics. None of what it stocks is labelled organic. There is some local produce, but even the people who work there cannot tell me for sure which is and which isn’t. Some produce is labelled as ‘Heritage Farm – locally sourced’ but I cannot find out just who this company actually is. As far as I’m aware, the most local food I can honestly say I have eaten this winter has been the onions scrumped from the fields after the harvest was taken away and handfuls that had not been picked up by the machinery were left to rot or be eaten by the deer.

Now that Spring has sprung, and new foods are available in my very own garden (nettle, mint, spinach, dandelions – strawberry are already in flower!) I am thinking more and more about sourcing local food. There are a few farm shops in the area, but these seem low on actual produce over highly packaged goods such as cakes, cookies, biscuits, chocolates, etc. They’re not so much farm shops as they are ‘farm boutiques’.

It raises another question as well – how local is local? 1 mile? 5 miles? 10 miles? Food grown in Britain?

Take for example my work lunch today, brought in from home. I have some Munchy Seeds, a Suffolk company that does delicious seed mixes. I have scoured the packet and website and nowhere does it say whether they are sourced locally or not (I have sent them an email enquiry). My banana was not grown in the UK, and has many, many food miles behind it. My apple is from Italy. The Twinings tea I am drinking has cucumber, aloe and nettle. There is no information about sourcing of ingredients. I also have a bag of mixed nuts that I dip into – they say ‘produced in Germany’ but can you grow cashews in German soil, or is it that the end package was produced in Germany? My decaf coffee has lots of food miles behind it, and other ethical considerations; the workers pay, the rainforest, etc. The almonds in the almond milk that I drank with it were not grown in this country.

I am seriously going to have to rejig my eating habits if I am to reduce the food miles in my eating habits. Having already made the switch to vegan, it’s been difficult enough already – eating out is an especial challenge in the rural countryside around here. There is usually always a veggie option, but it always contains cheese. One cannot live on chips and salad alone (provided the chips are fried in oil separate to the fish that is usually served with them).

Living on the coast, you would expect that you could get valuable vegan goods like seaweed rather easily. Unless you wade into the ocean yourself though, they are not to be found on any supermarket or local shop shelf, nor even in the ‘health food’ stores. I can find samphire on the beaches around here, but that’s all the local coastal veg that I know of. I think a Food Safari is in order! I also need to look into mushroom foraging workshops – I’d like to eat more foraged food. I will always remember one canoe camping trip in Sweden, when we helped a lost local with his basket of chanterelles who stumbled across our campsite get back to the village via our canoe in the failing light. Europe are much more aware of foraging, of what can be eaten and what can’t. However, considering the huge population of Britain, not everyone could forage without a devastating effect on the local flora and fauna.

So many, many questions, so many answers that need to be sifted through in order to find out what works best, ethically, for me personally. This blog post is not a sweeping statement to all that “This is the Way It Should Be” but how I need to make it work for myself personally in accordance with my principles and worldview.

My own vegetables will be planted shortly in my garden – lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Beans will also be planted, as well as peas. This coming winter I’m looking at growing potatoes, onions and carrots in pots or bags right up against the house where they will be warmer and hopefully keep going all winter long. It’s far from sustainable, but I don’t have the time to operate a fully sustainable food garden right now in my life. If my working hours are reduced, and most definitely upon retirement, things will change (if the planet is not totally screwed up by then).

So, is it more ethical for me personally to support the oil industry in my vegan eating, or to eat more locally sourced food that may include eggs from the farm down the road? I’ve already had to adjust my diet with a vegan vitamin and mineral supplement for health reasons; these are from the Vegan Society. Yet when you break it down, what industry or industries is that really supporting? Are we getting into the pharmaceutical debate here? I still don’t have an answer to this question, but I am aware of my eating habits now, and will use that to make the final decision.

Am I creating problems for myself? I would say no. What I am doing is sacrificing ignorance in order to be aware as much as I can of what I eat, why I eat it and what the result to the world is in my consumer habits. As a Druid, I have to scrutinise my consumerism in order to see if my relationship with the environment is an honourable one. For me, there is no other option – I could not live with myself by being wilfully ignorant of the various choices I may have. This is not a problem, per se, but the way that I already live my life. It’s making me consider choices more and more – problems arise when there is no choice to be made. As long as I have options, I do not have a problem. It is up to me to address it correctly in accordance with my beliefs.

There is still much more thinking and research to do…





14 thoughts on “Eating Vegan and Locally – the ethical debate

  1. A complex set of issues. I’m lucky here in that we have a food co-operative, farmer’s market and the such, but I couldn’t afford to eat that way all the time, it’s very costly. Not only do we need food solutions, but we need them to work for the many who are not able to afford organic right now, and the thousands depending on food banks… I have no doubt that we need sustainable, local food solutions. All being well, I’m going to explore a bit this year too – different but parallel. Looking forward to hearing about, and learning from, your journey.

  2. I’m a vegan, and for most fresh fruit and vegetables I eat locally and seasonally; I buy from a local farmer’s market. Often cheaper than supermarkets, less transport and less of a chain of handlers from producer to customer. I supplement my diet with dried pulses, nuts, spices, soya milk and other bits imported. In the winter my diet is still varied: porridge, cottage pie, using green lentils, curry, pasta meals, soups, sauces on jacket potatoes, cabbage pesto…….there is a misconception that vegans are entirely dependent on soya products.

    Much British livestock is fed on imported grain and soya, and of course there are all the ethical considerations regarding killing animals as part of food production, would you personally do it? It has been estimated that Britain could be largely self sufficient on a vegan diet.

    Of course most plant foods are grown using fertiliser derived from animal farming, but this certainly is not necessary as the Vegan-Organic Network demonstrate, see the article in the current edition of The Vegan: Growing Green.

    I think it is better to be right most of the time, rather than wrong all the time.

    Happy eating and happy living!

  3. I’m not a vegetarian let alone vegan but I too have been trying to become much more aware of my food choices in terms of local and organic produce. Even living in a city and eating meat these aren’t simple issues or choices and I also have to weigh my ethical preferences with what my children will realistically eat. My daughter in particular has a limited number of foods she will eat and autism plays a role in this too.

  4. The Guardian has an interesting article on why the food miles argument is oversimplified and in many cases is actually wrong.

    “Ethical shopping just got more complicated. The idea that only local produce is good is under attack. There is growing evidence to suggest that some air-freighted food is greener than food produced in the UK. Robin McKie and Caroline Davies report on how the concept of food miles became oversimplified – and is damaging the planet in the process”

  5. I’m a bit scatterbrained but meant to say if you look up the Transition groups closest to you even if not right where you live they may have more info on local, or reasonably local food sources. They seem to often have food co-ops too which could be useful if close enough for monthly or bi-annual treks to stock up on good local organic staples.

    I think we will not solve this individually but only through cooperative efforts like Transition Towns and permaculture groups since its unlikely most people will be growing the majority of their own food, if only because we can trade our surplus cucumbers or carambolas for someone else’s extra beans or manioc; -)

  6. Another option for buying seasonally and locally, is from the little stalls one sees on country lanes. I often buy from one when out cycling, excellent value, beetroots, carrots, beans, marrow, courgettes, lettuce, all have been available. ” Food Miles Zero, 99% Organic” a sign reads, and there’s an honesty box to put your money in.

  7. I think about this sort of thing regularly! I am so fortunate, I have to say, in North Queensland, Australia, where the region around the city I live in, within 2 hours distance, is home to fertile soiled farmland that growws practically everything, from sugar cane, bananas, mangoes and tropical fruits, to strawberries, pumpkins, coffee, and we also have a (dwindling) dairy industry, and even organic meats (sorry, I’m not vegan, but for that reason I only get and adore getting tp quality holsitically nurtured organic local meat!)
    But you make a very good point about food miles! And it isn’t always easy, as you say, for people to have local food, organic food, or grow their own food. I live in a small unit with minimal sun and room and with a lot of rain lately I have struggled to grow herbs, tomatoes and strawberries on my little patio.
    Don’t feel so bad about not being perfect in making your decisions. At least you think before you do. There is no such thing as perfection, but there is improvement, and at least whatever it is you are doing, whether it be vegan food from elsewhere, or animal-sourced foods/vegetarian locally, it still makes soemwhat of a difference either way.

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