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Beyond Food Miles

From Just Food a book I'm currently reading, what do you think?

Food miles matter. But they should not be stressed at the expense of other energy inputs that are equally, if not more, important to the overall energy cost of making food. There is no doubt that buying local brings to consumers many tangible and intangible benefits. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the relatively easy decision to support the regional foodshed is automatically an environmentally superior choice. Life-cycle assessments remind us that when a wider range of factors is considered—the conditions under which a food was produced, access to water, processing techniques, the form of energy employed, and so on—transportation amounts to a small piece of the pie (about 11 percent of a product’s energy cost).

Sure, it feels righteously green to buy a shiny apple at the local farmers’ market. But the savvy consumer must ask the inconvenient questions. If the environment is dry, how much water had to be used to grow that apple? If it’s winter and the climate is cold, was the apple grown in an energy-hogging hothouse? Is the local fish I’m ordering being hunted to extinction? The smart consumer will realize that in many cases it’s more efficient to buy that apple from a faraway place where the press on precious resources was lower, or a fish from a sustainable farm located on the other side of the country. Distance, in other words, is just a minor factor to consider. In overemphasizing food miles, we have missed important opportunities to think more critically about the fuller complexities of food production.



The focus on transportation costs for non-local foods was my biggest quibble with Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. Yes, I prefer to buy locally, directly from farmers (no middle men!), but foods bought in from a distance are transported with other merchandise. Unless a culture is determined to be completely insular, goods will cross borders.

Thus it is important to think about how any product is produced. People need to make their own informed decisions, but many don't have information at their fingertips. There's a decided disconnect between many people and the food they consume. When a local high school teacher talked about that fact that his students don't know what a tomato is, and they don't realize that french fries are made with potatoes, there's a huge information gap to fill. Heck, at a recent potato planting party, we were given extra potatoes to use as we saw fit: either plant or eat. Some people asked how to store them. There were a few "Oh's" when the farmer explained that if you wanted to eat them, but the potatoes had eyes, you could simply break off the eyes and cook. This was a reaction from people who have an interest in organic food! I'm hoping those who knew better (and I'm thinking of you, food culture PhD!) were just staying silent out of courtesy; even i managed to hold my tongue.

Part of being connected to food is avoiding processed food and buying locally. An informed connection would help a person make better decisions at the market as well as vote properly on environmental issues. Another thing to consider for meat eaters is not eating meat at every meal. It simply isn't necessary, although I am not an advocate for universal vegetarianism (never have been, not even when I consumed that diet. As you've noted, Norm, raising livestock takes a toll on our environment. I hate to finish on a tangent, but a balanced growing operation will use livestock to make things more efficient (à la Salatin or other farmers mentioned in my earlier post). Plus beans are yummy. Especially fava beans.

All valid points. And although painfully obvious, it bears repeating- LOCAL produce depends entirely on the LOCAL climate.

50 years of dirt-cheap gasoline and suburban sprawl have left some Americans in environments that are simply unable to support any significant local agriculture.

So what's the answer? Ecologically speaking, all rational people understand that living in the middle of a desert is asinine, and yet, USA migration patterns show more an more people heading southwest (from BOTH sides of the border). How do we explain this?

It's nice to think of Arizona getting starved out after peak oil kicks in.

Is it?

apparently the book is not out yet so I have only this extract.

Yet, I saw a documentary on British tv that showed some vegetables were grown in Scotland, then flown to Poland for conditioning, and then flown back to the storehouse of some supermarket 20 miles away from the growers. Does that make sense. Including air transport, there is also the truck transport, at least two times.

Europe has plenty of food, like chickens, yet it imports frozen chickens from Brazil. What sense does that make?

Pollution from ships which burn oil and air traffic is a significant point of general pollution.

Why not just eat food that is in season or can be stored. Basically, when you buy an apple, it has already been stored for months or maybe a year.

That is how agribusiness works.


Speaking as a New Zealander I can tell you that the food miles controversy has been a very sore point here for some time.

Agricultural produce is one of the mainstays of our economy and our major export earner. We actually have very little else to export, aside from timber, since our mineral resources are minimal, certainly in comparison to our powerful and wealthy neighbour Australia.

And yet there was and possibly still is an uninformed, irrational backlash in Europe and the UK against our produce even though it has been shown that in terms of carbon emissions and transport efficiency it compares well with produce grown in the northern hemisphere.

As one of our government ministers angrily pointed out a year or two ago, 95% or more of our products are shipped by sea and yet people still stupidly presume that we use aircraft to send everything everywhere.

It is also very important to note that since the early 1980's our farmers have operated successfully and productively without government subsidies of any kind. Nothing. Not a single cent. This is in stark contrast to farmers in Western Europe and the USA and it really annoys us when our produce is branded as 'inefficient' by people who have no grasp of the concept.

Still, at least when the energy crunch starts to really bite New Zealand will be self-sufficient in food without needing to import anything.

Any of you with an eye to the future should consider moving down here soon before we shut the door.

And then there's this:

Some locally grown foods will also have a much larger carbon footprint on the farm compared to foods transported from a distance. Tomatoes shipped from Mexico in the winter months have a smaller carbon footprint than tomatoes grown locally in a greenhouse. For consumers in the United Kingdom, lamb meat that travels 11,000 miles from New Zealand generates only one-quarter the carbon emissions per ton compared to British lamb because British farmers raise their animals on feed (which must be produced using fossil fuels) rather than on clover pastureland. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know

Shipping by boat is not that great. How many miles is it from NZ to America or Europe?

"The March 2006 report found marine sources belched 21,000 tonnes of particulate matter, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and sulfur oxide into the air in 2003 in this area, compared with only 10,000 tonnes in 1990.

The same report found that, from 1990 to 2003, emissions from land vehicles decreased compared with a steady rise in marine pollution, while aviation sources were steady."

The distance shipped is only one factor to consider, often something shipped thousands of miles will have a smaller carbon footprint than something purchased locally.


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