Hmm, not so simple a choice as it seems... <sigh>
Food That Travels Well
By JAMES E. McWILLIAMS
Published: August 6, 2007
THE term “food miles” — how far food has traveled before you buy it — has
entered the enlightened lexicon. Environmental groups, especially in Europe,
are pushing for labels that show how far food has traveled to get to the
market, and books like Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A
Year of Food Life” contemplate the damage wrought by trucking, shipping and
flying food from distant parts of the globe.
There are many good reasons for eating local — freshness, purity, taste,
community cohesion and preserving open space — but none of these benefits
compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel
consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work
and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink
our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.
On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing
greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer. In Iowa, the typical carrot has
traveled 1,600 miles from California, a potato 1,200 miles from Idaho and a
chuck roast 600 miles from Colorado. Seventy-five percent of the apples sold
in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, the writer Bill
McKibben says, even though the state produces far more apples than city
residents consume. These examples just scratch the surface of the problem.
In light of this market redundancy, the only reasonable reaction, it seems,
is to count food miles the way a dieter counts calories.
But is reducing food miles necessarily good for the environment? Researchers
at Lincoln University in New Zealand, no doubt responding to Europe’s push
for “food miles labeling,” recently published a study challenging the
premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel
consumption. Other scientific studies have undertaken similar
investigations. According to this peer-reviewed research, compelling
evidence suggests that there is more — or less — to food miles than meets
It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring
a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln
University scientists expanded their equations to include other
energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs
and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer
outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the
kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during
photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of
other cultivation inputs.
Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached
surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New
Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain
produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb
produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer
British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times
more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side
of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar
figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to
rethink the logic of food miles. New Zealand’s most prominent environmental
research organization, Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that
localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more
emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than
during transport.” The British government’s 2006 Food Industry
Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks to consider the environmental costs
“across the life cycle of the produce,” not just in transportation.
“Eat local” advocates — a passionate cohort of which I am one — are bound to
interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t. Not only do life cycle
analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food
production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local
Consider the most conspicuous ones: it is impossible for most of the world
to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food
production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more
fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living
in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond
what the season has to offer.
Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over
food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And
what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to
fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for
regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for
the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it
be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production
and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot
spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them
while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?
As concerned consumers and environmentalists, we must be prepared to
seriously entertain these questions. We must also be prepared to accept that
buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as
this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle
assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental
impact of eating. While there will always be good reasons to encourage the
growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop
in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts.
We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of
James E. McWilliams is the author of “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest
for Food Shaped America” and a contributing writer for The Texas Observer.