I Believe in Food Miles

May 19, 2009 at 10:02 am

Rob Gardner

On Sunday, I volunteered at FamilyFarmed.org’s booth at Green Fest.  I was tasked with pitching CSAs.  Before I got into my CSA spiel, I gave a bit of Michael Pollan.  “The biggest way we can impact the environment is through our food choices.”  Then I would tell them to start with a CSA.  I could have just said eat local.  Perhaps because I did not come to eating local for green reasons–I came for the best foods; I loved the farmers; I enjoyed the challenge–I have become more zealous in my green thinking.  I learned that eating local matters more than how it tastes.  I can sell the green benefits of eating local by explaining how you can choose the farming practices you want.  How you reduce packaging, especially if it all comes in a CSA box.  And how you make an impact by reducing the miles it takes for your food to reach you.  Yet this simple notion of food miles seems always under attack.

It is not so simple we are told.  Food miles do not matter.  Science.  Studies.  And the very esteemed Marion Nestle in the Atlantic recently gave a platform to food mile sceptics.  Ms. Nestle has no idea if the scientists she quotes “makes sense”, but there must be something to it.  Like others when pressed on food miles, she retreats to other benefits of eating local.  Listen, I’m pretty bad with numbers.  My last science class was a non-calculus version of astronomy, but I believe I can I apply some critical thinking that Nestle and others seem reluctant to when challenged over food miles.  I will not hide behind, well it tastes better.  I believe in food miles.

There are four arguments against food miles: 1) transportation plays a small role in the greenhouse emmissions associated with food; 2) certain green practices may completely outweigh the benefits of food miles (the New Zealand lamb study); 3) that the transportation of local food is too inefficient, negating any food mile benefit; 4) local food production, at least in some places, requires energy guzzling greenhouses, and these greenhouses have to use more energy than any transportation.  Let’s go through these.

It’s the Production Stupid

 This is the argument that gets the most play, and the one that Marion Nestle cites.  As she pastes in the Atlantic:

Transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle GHG emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%. Different food groups exhibit a large range in GHG-intensity; on average, red meat is around 150% more GHG-intensive than chicken or fish. Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

To me that just makes no sense. The scientists are saying there are very good ways to reduce GHG emissions, eating less meat and dairy. Why then jump to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with locally sourced foods. Eat more apples they say, but would we not get more benefit from eating locally sourced apples. After all, their study does not deny the GHG impact of transportation. Nestle and all who cite this work seem to be saying, do not do one thing good if we can do another thing better. Balderdash. We can do them both. Moreover, how much meat and dairy will we do without? If we cannot make the biggest change, maybe we can make a smaller change. Don’t just dismiss that.

My Lamb is Greener than Your Lamb

If you have a major interest in shipping your meat to buyers around the world, you have a major interest in telling them its better than their local meat.  You can tell them that your product is so green that it overcomes any transportation issue.  Just above we argued don’t compare meat to apples.  Well, these guys counter by comparing lamb to lamb.  This New Zealand lamb study has been widely cited to disarm locavores.  Listen, I am willing to concede the bonafides of this study, but I still say, so what.  Show me why the New Zealand lamb practices against the British lamb practices have universal applicability.  We can say that not all local products are produced the greenest.  Does that just say, pay attention to more than just the local label?  Does it not say that when the local practices are green, that the food miles come into play?

My Truck is Bigger Than Yours

Food miles do not matter because the materials are sent in highly efficient vehicles like semi-trucks, rail and ships.  Local food comes to the market in Ford, Izuzu and Chevorlet trucks.  That is what a writer in Salon told us last year.  And yes, (yes damnit!) a container of apples in the hold of an ocean liner is using less energy per apple to make it from here to there.  That, of course, does not mean that a lot of energy in total is being used in that here to there.  Two more things.  First, is every measure of the food chain efficient; how did the food get to the dock?  from the dock to you?  Second, do local farmers only use the least efficient methods?  A year ago, I pitted my anecdotal evidence against the Salon writer’s anecdotal evidence, my farmers at least were not gas guzzlers.

How’d You Get So Hot

The final argument against food miles is that in order to ensure local food supplies year round, in northerly climates, we have to use green houses, and that these green houses use more energy than non-local foods.  Like the New Zealand lamb situation, I am willing to concede that there may be some situations where green house production is no particularly green.  Again, however, I do not see any evidence to support that all green houses/hoop houses (the difference being the permanence of the building) are always less green.  Look for environmentally friendly practices such as those used by Growing Power.  Just ask Erika Allen about her ways.  You’ll be convinced its green.  Also, hoop houses play only a small part in local food production anyways, even in the winter.  Need more?  Much of the non-local food provided to the North in the winter comes from indoor sources anyways.  Look at the labels on your “vine-ripened” tomatoes and multi-colored peppers.

Don’t be afraid of the environmental impacts of eating local.  You can build communities AND build a better earth.  Reducing food miles by eating locally is just one of the ways you can go green.  If someone questions that, ask them to think critically of the arguments.  Use your noodle and believe in food miles.