The supermarket is a modern marvel, brimming with groceries from exotic places; before its advent, mangoes and bananas were foods that most Americans knew only from encyclopedias. Today, transporting topical fruit from its native clime to our morning mango-banana smoothie is no small task, and locavorism attempts to address the complex web of modern global agriculture, which often inflicts a toll on humans and the environment.
The local-foods movement highlights agricultural labor standards. Are farm laborers working 14-hour days, receiving meager pay, lacking health benefits and on-site emergency medical care, and breathing noxious fumes from fertilizers and pesticides? While the United States Department of Labor covers farm workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agriculture Worker Protection Act, labor watchdog groups like United Farm Workers report that farm labor contractors in the US nonetheless violate the law. Monitoring and regulating export-country farm-worker’s rights can be even more difficult. Groups like Human Rights Watch (operating in Canada and South America) and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union help implement improved farm-labor standards, while fair-trade organizations certify food products that have been cultivated in worker-friendly and environmentally sound conditions.
Buying goods directly from farmers makes it easier to verify that workers’ rights are honored. Visiting road-side stands and farmers’ markets, or developing ties to community-supported agriculture groups, urban farms, and local gardens, allows the plant-loving vegan to ensure that their food is sourced humanely.
Locavorism means thinking about how the environment pays a price because of modern mega-farms, which employ fossil-fuel-guzzling industrial equipment to irrigate, till, plant, fertilize, and harvest. Every stage of transporting those mangoes and bananas requires fossil fuels: mass-scale refrigeration, shipping trucks and trains, and cargo ships and planes. Shuttling goods from one corner of the earth to another requires keeping food fresh, which means sealing foodstuffs in plastic.
One example of plant-food mass production is the soybean. The US and Brazil supply most of America’s soybeans, which are produced using mono-cultural farming methods. The US Department of Agriculture predicts that this year the US will harvest a record breaking 3.32 billion bushels of soybeans, while the Brazilian government predicts a 2010 crop yield of 2.96 billion bushels. In the past 40 years, Brazil has chopped down 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest and replaced this land with soy empires, logging companies, and cattle ranches. These beans don’t just end up in our tofu stir-fry or soy ice cream. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 30 million tons of soybean meal becomes livestock feed every year. Such farming methods support factory farms, harm animals, displace native people, and damage ecosystems.
Vegetarians can implement small, practical changes to halt some of this damage. Try buying local produce whenever possible—cutting out exploitative middlemen means cheaper costs and fosters connections with farmers and the soil. A fresh smoothie made from local apple juice, homemade almond milk, and wild blueberries is just as delicious as its mango-banana counterpart. When local food sheds go into hibernation, regional, statewide and even national organic produce makes a great alternative—and fair-trade labels are your best friend when going global. Reducing suffering is a tenet of vegetarianism, and watching out for workers’ rights violations and environmental degradation supports this goal.