Resolved: a host of academic, journalistic, and community-based work has increased its focus in recent years on the matter of local food. In no way could I summarize the breadth of that work. But I am frequently surprised to find the same conversations going on, over and over again. For example, just this week there was yet another article asking if fewer food miles are really better. I was astounded that the author wrote the story–in which he assumed that carbon emissions were the measure of a food system’s environmental value–and that the Salon editors gave it the go-ahead, because it repeats much of what has already been written about the subject. Many times. Are we spinning our wheels?
Food Miles, the concept of measuring the distance from farm to fork, is one subject within the pantheon of local food discussions. It is a subset of the broader local food conversation. The term was coined in the 1990s and the technological and commercial imperatives that have helped shape its existence go back at least to the refrigerated rail car in the 1800s, but the term has become far more publicly visible in the past three or so years. In that recent rise to public visibility it has also become a source of tension and counter-critique. (‘The Food Miles concept is good’; ‘no, no, it’s bad’; ‘awww come on, it’s good’; and so forth.)
The premise of the Food Miles concept was/is to offer a way for consumers to gauge their distance from their food sources. It was a way to help people envision their connections to the land (or the complex infrastructure that fits between them and the land, leading to the perception that they/we are not connected). The concept’s most recent rise to prominence in public debate has been seen it become part of energy efficiency discussions — and this has it that “buying local” (as a move for fewer food miles would recommend) is narrowly and solely about reducing carbon emissions.
Last summer, James McWilliams summarized these issues in a New York Times op-ed. A few posts at this blog (like this one, and this one, and this one) sought to get past the limitations of a carbon-only discussion, to promote instead one of environmental values and not simply carbon emissions. This, to me, seemed more in keeping with the purpose of discussing localism and the possibility of non-centralized industrial food chains. Keeping it a debate about value propositions creates a conversation that differs from that given by a narrow and instrumental debate about carbon accounting. None of that is to say (and I’ve become more aware that these caveats are necessary on blogs) that carbon emissions are not important. Certainly they are. But discussing Food Miles as an issue of carbon emissions *alone* reduces the many reasons–cultural and environmental–one would seek to promote local food systems. While the earlier years of recent attention to localism and food miles did not do keep it at the level of carbon, numerous published studies of late have.
The Food Miles issues also spawned an academic and community-based project I began last year to build a map of local foodsheds that incorporated both qualitative and quantitative elements; our premise was that to argue about the relationship of energy consumption and local food required actual data, not just abstractions. We wanted to work towards addressing the energy-agriculture connection so as to improve it, not so as to claim that it’s worthless. I feel that even writing that is a measure of wheel-spinning. I’m just repeating what many others have already said.
Take Craig Sewell, for example. He is a chef, caterer, cooking teacher, and owner operator of A Cook’s Cafe in Annapolis, MD. He’s said all of this stuff too, and he’s the real deal. Last July, a recent story at Chesapeake Foodie says, he:
began sourcing local farms to supply his cafe. Driven by a realization that we must learn to live and eat differently, for our own sakes as well as the earth’s, he sought out local farmers and met with them personally. “What I learned…is that eating local is about more than just our menus — it’s about supporting our farmers, our local economy, and our health.”
One consequence of this new identity as a local food practitioner is his involvement beyond simply food avenues, but also into developing stronger local economic systems to make those local products viable — such as with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).
Which is to say, you don’t have read about the issue of localism and food miles from journalists and academics. Find actual practitioners. Beyond the rhetoric, many people–local food advocates, chefs, farmers, growers, consumers–are working to reconfigure the dominant food production, distribution, and consumption system. From Joel Salatin and his sourcing of the Charlottesville Chipotle restaurant to farm-to-school programs to local caterers, grocery stores, and chefs.
Localism is thus a challenge that people are taking up. And now, to continue with my poorly chosen automotive metaphors, the rubber is hitting the road. Food Miles as a useful rubric, rather than caught under the wheel of academic theorizing or journalistic posturing, is also something to keep an eye on.
As it goes.
Before I move on, though, and despite urging this move beyond the same ole story, I offer below a brief canvas of the Food Miles discussion pointing to sources from the mainstream media, from university research, and from peer-reviewed academic journals. This is but a sampling from a larger bibliography, but it helps me keep tabs and hold the span of debate in view.
- Bennet, Drake. July 22, 2007. “The Localvore’s Dilemma,” Boston Globe
- Black, Jane. September 17, 2008. “What’s in a Number?“, Slate.com
- Kwok, Roberta. June 24, 2008. “Is local food really miles better?“, Salon.com
- Martin, Andrew. December 9, 2007. “If It’s Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener?” New York Times
- McKie, Robin. March 23, 2008. “How the myth of food miles hurts the planet,” The Observer
- McWilliams, James. August 6, 2007. “Food That Travels Well,” New York Times
- Specter, Michael. February 25, 2008. “Big Foot: In measuring carbon emissions, it’s easy to confuse morality and science,” The New Yorker
University researchers and agro-research centers:
- Arco, Andrea. March 4, 2008. U.Va. Engineering School Student Investigates Energy Expenditures at the Charlottesville City Market
- Beatley, T., and T.D. Cobb. 2006. “The Charlottesville Region Food System: A Preliminary Assessment.” Report from the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.
- Burtt, V., D. Fox, E. Heshka, J. Hodgson, D. Leon. 2007. “Carbon Dioxide Externalities Related to Produce Transportation.” Report from the Department Of Rural Economy at the University of Alberta.
- Pirog, R., T. Van Pelt, K. Ensayan, and E. Cook. 2001. “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa Perspective on How Far Food Travels, Fuel Usage, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Research Report for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
- Pirog, R. July 2003. “Checking the food odometer: Comparing food miles for local versus conventional produce sales to Iowa institutions”, Research Report for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University
- Saunders, C., A. Barber, and G. Taylor. 2006. “Food Miles- Comparative Energy/ Emissions Performance of New Zealand’s Agriculture Industry.” Research Report 285 from the Agribusiness & Economics Research Unit at Lincoln University, New Zealand.
- Vasilikiotis, Christos. 2000. “Can Organic Farming Feed the World?” Research Report From the University of California, Berkeley.
- Watkiss, Paul. 2005. “The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development.” Report produced for DEFRA.
Academic, peer-reviewed articles:
- Born, Branden and Mark Purcell. 2006. “Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research.” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26: 195-207.
- DuPuis, E. Melanie and David Goodman. 2005. “Should we go “home” to eat?: toward a reflexive politics of localism,” Journal of Rural Studies, 21: 359-371
- Fonte, Maria. 2008. “Knowledge, Food and Place. A Way of Producing, a Way of Knowing,” Sociologia Ruralis 48: 200-222 doi:10.1111/j.1467-9523.2008.00462.x
- Hinrichs C. 2003. “The practice and politics of food system localization,” Journal of Rural Studies, 19: 33-45
- Iles, Alastair. 2005. “Learning in Sustainable Agriculture: Food Miles and Missing Objects,” Environmental Values 14: 163-183
- Badgley, C., J. Moghtader, E. Quintero, E. Zakem, M.J. Chappell, K. Aviles-Vazpquez, A. Samulon, and I. Perfecto. 2006. “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 22: 86-108
- Clark S., et al. 1999. “Crop-yield and economic comparisons of organic, low-input, and conventional farming systems in California’s Sacramento Valley.” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 14: 109-121
- Mila i Canals L., S.J. Cowell, S. Sim, L. Basson. 2007. “Comparing Domestic Versus Imported Apples: A Focus on Energy Use.” Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 14: 338-344
- Sim S, M. Barry, R. Clift, S.J. Cowell. 2007. “The Relative Importance of Transport in Determining an Appropriate Sustainability Strategy for Food Sourcing.” International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 12: 422-431
- Weber, Christopher and H. Scott Matthews. 2008. “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States.” Environ. Sci. Technol., 42 (10): 3508-3513