"Food Miles" Under Review

Herein, discussion of another recent piece on agriculture and science - the third one, as foreshadowed in my last post - this one an editorial in the Times that touches on Food Miles. (Thanks to Laura for sending it along.) Food Miles are the distance food travels to get to your plate. The author of the commentary, James McWilliams, notes that it has become part of the conversation on organic and local agriculture, referring to the same Barbara Kingsolver book--Animal, Vegetable, Miracle--we just made note of in the Science and the Farm Bill post.

The Food Mile measurement is helpful in clarifying the difference between, say, a local farm that is not organic and an organic farm that is not local. So, if you go to Whole Foods, they might have organic apples, shipped from a thousand miles away. Is this better than having pesticide-laced apples grown locally? (Obviously, a locally grown organic apple would be best, but such is not a common option.)

The measurement deals with fossil fuel usage; it focuses on CO2 emissions. How much energy and how much fossil fuel do we use to ship all that food so far? For example: How many calories does it take to ship 1 calorie of California lettuce? 90. Not a very good balance there. So Food Miles help bring attention to the relationship between agriculture and energy.

The op-ed piece brings up research that asks, is a high count of Food Miles really worse? All things considered? What about when you factor in "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"? (See here too for work by Canadian researchers on the same subject.)

Consider this. Researchers in New Zealand,

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.

On that count, fewer Food Miles are less clear-cut as "better." So you have that. But let me shift here to my use of quotes, the "better" part, that is, because that is the crux of the issue. This is more fundamentally a conversation about environmental ethics, about what is right and good and possibly better, and how go about knowing so.

What do we mean by better? Who defines what better is? Better for whom? Or for what? For the air? For the water? For us? Better under what concept of humans and nature? Is less fossil fuel usage always better? Is local not as good if the chemical inputs are greater? How would one come up with a calculation about all these inputs and outputs? These are all issues of environmental ethics.

And all of this, as I've worded it and as the op-ed piece reflects it, requires us to assume that the issue is about inputs, outputs, and calculations. It requires us to assume, a priori, that the way to argue about agriculture, energy, and "what is right and best?" is to perform quantitative calculations -- specifically, carbon emissions. This is what engineers and scientists do, I recognize. So I'm not suggesting that I am surprised that we, as a culture, lean this way when assessing, discussing, and representing food choices. I'm saying, more modestly, that Food Miles are a helpful gauge to think about where our food comes from and what that entails, yes, but that there's more to local and organic and local organic than just that. Calculations are not everything. (As well, one might point out that if you live in Britain perhaps energy-intensive lamb isn't a good idea, but New Zealand lamb also isn't a legitimate food option.)

Which is to say, I'm not much concerned about new calculations on the matter, I'm not aiming this post at debunking or refuting the op-ed (it's a nice review), nor am I aiming to call into question Food Miles. Instead, I'd rather hear a further discussion about the non-quantitative aspects that go into our food choices and options. The author of the op-ed gets into that too, early in his commentary, but we can be more emphatic.

Can we get up a few non-quantitative, non-technical examples? What reasons beyond fuel use do we consider when making what we consider better food choices?

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When trying to make better food choices we try to think of a sense of community, knowing exactly where your food came from and who grew it. We try to think of a direct connection to the act of producing what we consume to keep us alive and making sure that it has a minimal negative impact on our environment. But to make sure it has a minimal impact we absolutely need to discuss these issues in a quantifiable way.

If it takes x amount of fuel and feed and pesticide to produce a pound of lamb 10 miles from me and y amount to produce that same pound 10,000 miles (including delivery) away from me and y is significantly less than x, they y lamb is the better option.

And who is to say the sense of community (global community) or fellowship you get from helping a New Zealand sheep farmer is less valid then a sense of kinship with a local sheep farmer? What about of poor family from Ecuador that would be stuck substance farming if they couldn't sell the free trade coffee they grow to the rest of the world? Helping people make the most of their local resources is a big part of the potential of a global food system (ideally executed of course). Global warming and pollution affect everyone. If buying some of my food from different parts of the planet helps lessen my impact on the environment then so be it.

Interesting post, thanks.

One reason that I have heard for pursuing organic foods is the perception that foods prepared without chemicals are more healthy. For instance, organic fruit is not sprayed with chemical pesticides, so the consumer in turn is ingesting fewer chemicals.

I'm sure the amount of chemical intake (and correspondent health effects) could be measured quantitatively, but if the consumer derives greater peace of mind by eating "naturally" I would think that would go beyond carbon and fuel.

As for some non-quantitative, non-technical benefits from rethinking food choice, here are some from this Seattle reader.

- Biking to the local farmers' market is a nice social experience and fun exercise for my wife and me.
- We interact with friends and growers at the market.
- We are more creative with our cuisine choices. (Creativity is its own reward.)
- The local fruit stand 'cherry man' (who in fact has other types of Washington & Oregon fruit) treats us like old friends. Although I think he has a lot of 'old friends.'
- Asking waiters where the fish or produce on our plate came from has yet to visibly annoy them.
- I enjoy knowing more about local fruit and vegetable seasons.
- It's fun for me to think about how the fruit traveled over the same roads I have.

And don't forget about the 'feeling better for doing what you think is right' bit.

Great post! It made me realize that I sometimes get caught up in the minutiae of the calculations (as when I wrote a response to the Economist's organic/local/Fair Trade food article in December), when my overarching goal is to promote a hard-to-quantify goal - basically, that everyone has enough healthy food to eat a good livelihood and it's all sustainable.

One issue that's semi-quantifiable is the kind of agriculture our purchases support. One of the reasons I shop at the farmers' market is that I like to support smaller farms. (My local market also has a lot of organic and no/low-pesticide produce, so it's a win-win.) The corporatization of agriculture has led to a lot of problems, including the larding of the farm bill with unnecessary subsidies and the hijacking of climate change concerns to get federal support for ethanol, which will benefit corn producers a great deal and cost most of the rest of us in numerous ways. (Don't even get me started on CAFOs.) Smaller farmers might push for these things, too, but I doubt they have the clout of ADM.

There are also benefits to having more localized food networks. Damage from things like e. coli-contaminated spinach can be limited, and we're less vulnerable to disruptions at central distribution points (e.g., hurricane damage to a major port).

I also like to buy fair trade products when I can. These are things like coffee, tea, sugar, and bananas that aren't grown in the U.S., anyway, so the distance issue is less relevant. Fair trade coffee producers get at least $1.26 per pound for their coffee, have access to credit so they can invest in supplies and equipment, and enjoy long-term, stable relationships with the coffee purchasers. This is in contrast to the standard system, where numerous middlemen and exploitative loan conditions leave many coffee farmers earning too little to buy supplies for their next harvest, let alone support their families.

Some of the money from fair trade products also goes to the producer communities, where it's used for things like schools, health clinics, and environmental initiatives. It might be next to impossible to do fair trade on a massive scale, but I think it's worth supporting the farmers who are involved with it at this point, anyway.

Thanks Bob -- you bring up a fair point; Size -- yours too; and Thomas -- great link (good stuff at your site) and contribution with the list.

As a follow-up, I'd say the cultural dimensions have to factor in always and as a central element, not just an addendum after the calculations. We always say that culture has to change, and that changing culture is not easy (especially if it relies upon telling other people what they 'should' think, which is certainly problematic), but I think we could also more simply spend more time talking about how the cultural aspects we believe in are already out there, available and amenable.